In the Cold & Out of Cash: Passport Problems for Support Non-Payors

By Jennifer M. Painepassport revoke child support

Attorney, Cordell & Cordell, P.C., Detroit office

Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on passport problems for support non-payors. Click here to read Part 2.

It’s been a long, cold winter. Your divorce was over two years ago, or so you thought. That was when the judge ordered you out of your home, into the home you used to rent to college students (none too careful to patch the holes in the wall from too many games of indoor baseball). That was when the judge ordered you to payoff half of your and your ex-wife’s credit cards (most from her weekly trips to the spa and mall on the expensive side of town). That was when your judge reduced you to a weekender parent (who pays child support like a bottomless ATM or the proverbial money tree). But that was also when you ventured out into the single life, determined to make it on your own, dumpy house and debt and weekend child and all. And for a time, you did.

But this winter was different. You lost your job. Your car broke down. Your ex-wife nit-picked every weekend parenting time. She had an expensive lawyer. You had none. To appease her, you started paying child support directly to her. She hated waiting for her checks in the mail from the State. She promised she and her lawyer “would take care of everything,” so you ignored the past due support notices in the mail. She wouldn’t try to collect, so why worry?

It was time for a break. Yes, a short trip in the sun with the money your parents gave you on your birthday – “Just in case you need it,” they said, eyeing the holes left in your rental home. Maybe you could find a job overseas. You promised yourself you would not spend much, only for the basics. You searched and searched online to find the cheapest prices –- a red-eye flight mid-week, an economy hotel close to the beach, complementary breakfasts with fruit you could stow away for lunch. This would be a pleasant parting from the stress of it all, just for a few days.

But not so fast. The Secretary of State revoked your passport.

 

There are plenty of costs for parents who dodge child support payments, most of which parents already know. Your judge can send you to jail, have a sheriff boot your car, order your driver’s and professional licenses revoked, and allow the State to garnish your wages, tap into your bank accounts and collect your income tax returns, to name a few. But other costs for even unintentional conduct go unknown, or unconsidered like urban myths, until they stare you in the face, in the cold of winter when you are ready for a break – passport denial and revocation.

Could the Secretary of State deny or revoke your passport when you have child support arrears? Yes! Here’s more:

 

Why passports?

This question is more complex than its two-word simplicity suggests.

As a simple matter, “deadbeat parents” are difficult to reach outside the country. The State court is more likely to find success if these parents remain in the country, within process server and police officer reach. But the same is true if the court just sent these parents to jail, whether or not they had passports. Why should the federal government have the power to tamper with their passports, too?

That is a question of complex federal law. As we learn in civics class, our federal government has only the powers granted in the Constitution, and all others remain to the States. One of those State powers is the power to make and enforce domestic relations orders, like child support orders, and another is the power to make and enforce criminal laws, like felony non-support laws. See, e.g., United States v Mussari, 95 F3d 787 (9th Cir 1996). Then what federal interest is there? Money. As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained…

Congress also has financial concerns because unsupported children must look to the public fisc, including the federal treasury, for financial sustenance. That was the impetus for the enactment [of the passport laws] . . . . Surely it makes sense to assure that those who do not pay their child support obligations remain within the country, where they can be reached by our processes in an at least relatively easy way. Eunique v Powell, 302 F3d 971 (9th Cir 2002). Therefore, there is at least a reasonable fit between the federal government’s interests and the passport laws. Id.

 

Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on passport problems for support non-payors. Click here to read Part 2.

 

Jennifer M. Paine is an Associate Attorney in the Detroit, Michigan office of Cordell & Cordell P.C. She is licensed to practice in Michigan, and has been admitted pro hac vice in Illinois, Ohio, and the United States Court of Federal Claims. Ms. Paine received her BA in English and Mathematics from Albion College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She received her Juris Doctorate from MSU College of Law and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

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