What Happens if I Fail to Pay Child Support?

By Andrea Johnson

Attorney, Cordell & Cordell

Typically all orders, including those awarding alimony, child support, property awards, division of debts, and any other award in a divorce proceeding, are enforceable by a contempt action.

If you fail to comply with an order of the court to pay child support, it’s likely the custodial parent of your child(ren) will seek an order of contempt.

A contempt action’s real purpose is to ensure compliance with the order of the court. The practical effect, however, could be big trouble for an individual who fails to comply.

Most often, parties seeking a contempt order threaten jail time for the non-paying party. The reality is that jail time could be a remedial measure used by the court, but it is more often a last resort for the judge.

A contempt action is civil in nature and the purpose of the contempt is remedial rather than punitive. This means that the purpose of an order of contempt is not intended to “get you in trouble.”

Typically, a motion for contempt is an independent action (usually ancillary to a divorce action or an order to pay support), and the same civil procedure requirements exist. This means that for a contempt action, the moving party must serve the offending party personally with a Summons and a copy of the Motion for Contempt.

If you are served with a summons and complaint, as in any other civil action, you generally must respond within thirty (30) days of the date of service by filing an answer with the clerk of court. (Note: check with your local jurisdiction’s requirements as they may vary.)

Though the contempt action is ancillary to the divorce action, discovery may occur because it is an independent suit. This means that much like in the divorce action, the Plaintiff has the right to request production of documents and seek the answers to interrogatories. In many cases, the purpose is to determine whether there is a source of funds for the payment of the past due support.

You will not be held in contempt if the court finds an inability to pay, but this does not absolve the debt or the arrears. In order for the court to find an inability to pay, it must be shown by clear evidence that the offending party has exhausted all resources and assets after paying his own obligations and that he is unable to borrow the money from a third party.

Many parties believe that their child support (or alimony) obligations belong to them and only them. This is true to the extent that no other third party can be held in contempt for failure to pay or ordered to make the payments on another’s behalf.

However, when it comes to determining inability to pay, the judge may look to the party’s parents and other family members as a source from which to borrow. The judge may evaluate balances in a bank account, 401k account, or some other liquid asset to determine where the funds may be drawn from.

In most cases, when there is a failure to pay support and the party who has failed to pay the support shows their financial hardship and a legitimate reason for the failure to pay, the court will provide for a repayment of the arrears.

This can be anything from “pay by the end of the day” to a lengthy payback plan. Judges do not throw people in jail unless it becomes apparent that they have no other option for the enforcement of their own orders.

It should be noted that a judge does not have the discretion to modify its order within a contempt action. If you find yourself in a contempt action due to an inability to pay, you must file a separate modification case if you want the support amount evaluated for modification.

Cordell & Cordell has men’s divorce lawyers located nationwide should you seek legal representation.


Read our series of articles on contempt:

Also, read our series of articles on modifications:


men's divorce lawyer Andrea JohnsonAndrea M. Johnson is a Senior Attorney in the Atlanta, Georgia office of Cordell & Cordell, where she practices domestic relations exclusively. Ms. Johnson is licensed to practice law in the state of Georgia. Ms. Johnson was born in the metro-Atlanta area and has spent most of her life in Georgia. She received her Bachelor of Science in Political Science from Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia in 1998. Ms. Johnson received her Juris Doctor from Mercer University School of Law in 2002.  Since graduating from law school, Ms. Johnson has practiced in the area of family law. Additionally, she has worked in general civil practice, immigration, and estate planning. Ms. Johnson has briefed two cases successfully before the Georgia Court of Appeals, one of which was a modification of custody action.

End of Content Icon

One comment on “What Happens if I Fail to Pay Child Support?

    If someone owes $31,875.00 in child support and has had no income at all since before being ordered to pay monthly payments and has an active disability case pending then what might this individual be able to do to avoid any jail time or any further penalties.. I’ve not earned one penny in all the years I’ve been receiving statements showing where I’m acquiring a new $400.00 balance every month…How can I pay $400.00 per month out of $0 income plus I’m unable to work…I’ve been arrested twice and had to bond out on a cash bond both times…First time I paid $1,600 cash bond and the 2nd time it was around $2,200 cash bond..I was told to send in copies of my disability case I have pending in which I did… I was told they’d still have to send me monthly statements however they went by my moms home looking for me today stating they have an attachment (I’m assuming means something like a warrant for my arrest)….What more can I do if I’m unable to work nor have no income whatsoever to give them???
    I have no income for them to garnish my wages…I believe they ordered me to pay support 6-8yrs ago..Maybe longer… I’ve not had a job in 12-13yrs…Also my license have been revoked.. I have no family or friends that can transport me places..Once a month to my doctor and that’s it..So if I were able to work then I have no transportation to get out to look for a job or get to and from work if I were lucky enough to get one…It makes no since to me how someone can be expected to go look for work or keep a job without a drivers license.. A drivers license is a very crucial part of being able to get and keep a job and to be able to care oneself..To be independent..It would seem if the government found receiving child support payments and parents keeping to their visitations then they would also find it just as important that the parent owing the support or assigned visitations had a valid driver’s license so that they could much better comply with the states rules and regulations…. No license equals no transportation to work or to visit their children… That’s just common sense

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *