By “Dad X”
When I was laid off from my corporate job of many years, it didn’t bother me as I had worked all my life and I had experienced one or two other changes from longtime positions.
It always led to bigger and better things, so I paid my child support from my savings and figured I’d just pay it back from my first few paychecks. After some time with no paychecks, I began to worry.
It seems that my industry had adopted a new hiring policy – young and cheap. I was neither. Support payments started making me very nervous.
It was time again to modify child support and the kids had been out of private school for almost a year (by the time of the hearing). The economy was in an obvious depression, millions of jobs were being lost, and I would not be able to gain employment at my past level.
However, the judge wouldn’t hear it. “Go find another job!” he demanded. Naturally, I kept looking, as I had from day one of unemployment. I looked everywhere, even out of my field.
At the time, with so many unemployed executives and VPs (we’re not talking about millionaires), someone coined the term “job parking.” It meant that overqualified workers would take a job as a filler until they could find a job in their profession and at their previous level. Employers didn’t care to train people only to have them leave (and not have their heart in the job).
Fast forward and I’m dead broke. No more savings, no more IRA. Nothing. No child support either. One month, two months, three and a half months behind. I had no idea of the invisible ramifications that would affect my search for work and the contempt dangers that hung over me.
What You Don’t Know Can Really Hurt You
It was when I heard from a former coworker, who had also been thrown away by our former employer, that I realized I wasn’t alone in being a “deadbeat dad,” as the court is so fond of labeling non-custodial fathers behind on child support. He was many months behind and his ex-wife was starting to threaten him with contempt of court. He was worried but not as much as he should have been.
He didn’t want to reveal the amount he owed. It’s easy to be embarrassed by one’s financial problems. His brother had gone off the grid for years due to back child support and contempt charges. His life was one big manure pile.
I rattled off some of the ramifications he might already face and not know it. “Depending on how much you owe,” I told him, “you may have a reported debt to all the credit services for back child support. Employers,” I added as he was struggling to find a job, “will see that debt and that may keep you from getting the positions you’ve applied for.”
His groan was loud and long. Pay child support but if you’re looking for work, we’ll just help by putting a black mark on your financial profile that employers will see. Another sound bit of citizen service brought to you by the government!
“Another thing that might hinder your job search is they take your passport away after you owe a certain amount of money. $2,000, I think.” I could hear him slap his palm to his forehead. For some non-custodial fathers that can be the amount of one payment.
He and I were in the same department at our former employer and foreign travel was always a looming possibility. We were all told to keep our passports current.
There had been several job interviews where I was asked if I could travel out of the country. At that point, I owed just enough to lose my passport but not enough that one or two good paychecks wouldn’t wipe out my debt, or at least lower it enough to get my passport back. I always gulped hard and said I had a current passport. People sneak in and out of countries every day. Worst case scenario, I suppose I could, too.
“I don’t know what your state laws are,” I continued with delivering the good news, unicorns and rainbows, “but at a certain level, they can take away your driver’s license.”
My friend blew up at that one and it took some discussion of driving privileges that would be retained for a work commute. I mean, the state may be heartless and cruel but they want to keep the money flowing (and collect federal funds for collecting child support) as opposed to paying to house dangerous, broke fathers that are such a threat to society.
I asked if his ex had threatened to motion for contempt. He mumbled that she had only said “go to court” to him. “That’s contempt,” I replied.
Avoid Contempt At ALL Costs!
“Get an attorney right now!” I told him. “As if the other stuff wasn’t bad enough, being guilty of contempt is a major drag on your life.”
Contempt of a court order is a felony. If you are found guilty, you lose your rights to vote and own a firearm. You will either go to jail or have to pay weekly visits to your parole officer (or check in by phone weekly with occasional face-to-face visits) for at least a year.
For the rest of your life you will be a felon. It will follow you wherever you live, it will be on every job application, driver’s license application (in some states), limit where you can rent an apartment and life will go on, but with that legal tag hanging over you, which won’t help you make a better life.
The only thing I can tell you about jail – which could be three to six from lenient judges for problem offenders, and four years for high amounts of support arrears – is you will lose everything. The judge may remand you into custody right away or give you 24-48 hours to get your affairs in order before reporting to the jail.
Ask yourself, if you weren’t allowed to go home for a long period of time, what would happen to all of your possessions? Would friends and family be able to support rent or mortgage for you? If you can’t find someone to pack up your stuff, it will eventually be thrown away by your landlord, your car towed and impounded at $75 a day storage fees and you would be released from jail with only the clothes on your back. Then how would you start your life over?
By the way… your child support payments you didn’t make while in jail are due and you’re in deeper arrears.
My friend went out and got an attorney. It’s the only thing you can do. You’ll never be able to properly defend yourself to a court. You’ll end up, at best, just pleading guilty but not going to jail, but having a felony rap.
Start Paying Something!
Most judges won’t throw someone in jail for owing support due to arrears that aren’t outrageous. You probably didn’t just decide to skip payments. Chances are, you’re in dire straights and just making rent but owing everybody in the universe.
Under the advice of my attorney, I started paying what I could by cutting out a few expenses. It might be cable TV or Internet service (you can use the library or a McDonald’s for their WiFi if need be), or anything else you can live without. Pay that to your support account in a regular and timely manner. Intention of paying will probably keep you out of jail.
Hopefully, your judge is at least all business with some compassion. One father reported that the judge said it was plain and simple. Did he owe back support? Yes! He was guilty.
Another judge told a father, who had tried to emancipate his 23 year-old daughter unsuccessfully that he didn’t care if the man lived “in a box under a bridge,” he had to keep paying the court ordered amount. The man in question was making half what he did seven years before and the judge not only refused to modify support, but wouldn’t emancipate the daughter because she still lived with her mother, although she didn’t work or attend college. The state won’t allow you to kick out a 23 year-old child?
My judge had a sense of humor at my contempt trial. “If you go to jail,” he said with a smile, “you won’t have to worry about rent or food!”
While I considered the reply, “and I could learn a new trade skill… like MURDERING PEOPLE!” I instead asked the judge if I was supposed to answer that. He said “no!” but he also didn’t throw me in jail or find me guilty. It was all part of getting my motion to modify child support and my ex’s contempt charges out of the court. He liked a nice, clear docket.
For The Good Of The Kids
It’s an odd system. For the good of the kids, the court will come down hard on non-paying fathers, and rightly so for those who just don’t want to pay, but what punishment fits the crime? The “behind or not behind” is too black and white and that’s what a judge should and often does consider when it comes to gray areas.
The system set up what should be fair payments to support one’s children, but if you are paying for summer camp or special needs not used for several years as the children grow and arrears keep your assigned judge from allowing modification, you tend to be stretched to the limit financially.
While you may need to beg, borrow or steal (legally, of course!), defending yourself against a contempt charge in the world of the courts is frightening. Hire an attorney who knows how to work the system, because that system wants your money and they’ll get it, one way or another!
There are many great pieces of literature for the layperson about divorce laws. Some are available from your state family court website. You can also find numerous resources here at DadsDivorce.com.
Check back on the first of every month for the next column, outlining the mistakes I’ve made and how to best work with your attorney for success and, most of all, a better life for you and your children.
To arrange an initial consultation to discuss divorce rights for men, contact Cordell & Cordell.