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When The Check's Not in the Mail (a.k.a. how to collect child support)

Do you have issues getting your ex to pay child support? If so, you’re in (gulp) good company. According to the most recent updates from the U.S. Census Bureau, less than half (45.9%) of custodial parents who were supposed to receive child support actually received the full payments.

We’re not talking about parents who don’t even have an order in place to receive child support. That’s a different - and also important - category. We’re talking about parents with a legal support order in place, but the support’s still not coming.

If this is you, what can you do to collect? Good news is you’ve got options. (And we don’t mean screaming, cursing, or threatening.) We’ve evaluated the pros and cons of each below.


1. Get help from your state’s Child Support Enforcement Program office.

The Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program is a joint effort by the federal and state governments to help parents receive their child support payments. If you’re interested in learning more about the federal office, you can find it here.

Or you can find the particulars of your state’s CSE program (this is where you’ll need to go for direct help) here.

  • Pros: It’s free or cheap. The CSE office charges little or nothing for its assistance. They also have a number of creative ways to help collect your court-ordered support, like:

-Working directly with the IRS to have money taken from your ex’s federal tax refund

-Placing a lien on his/her assets (think house, car, even computer equipment)

-Levying (taking) the money directly from your ex’s bank account

-Using state laws to prosecute your ex (yes, that’s jail)

-Suspending or revoking your ex’s license (driver's, fishing, professional, etc.)

-Posting information about delinquent parents on the internet.

Like we said, they’ve got options.

  • Cons: It’s slow. You’re dealing with the government here. Child support offices are understaffed and overworked. That means it might take months or longer to get the results you’re looking for.


2. Hire an attorney to help collect your child support.

  • Pros: You can get quick(er) results. An attorney can’t do anything your state’s CSE office can’t, but the attorney can probably do things much faster. You’ll still have to deal with the court system, but not the backlog within the CSE’s office.

  • Cons: It’s much more expensive. But, you might recover your attorney’s fees and legal costs from your ex. If you’re considering this route, be sure to ask your lawyer how likely he/she thinks it is that the Judge will award you fees. And remember, a lawyer isn’t a bank. Many lawyers will expect you to pay their fees up front (you’ll be reimbursed later if you’re awarded fees). Some might instead take a percentage of what is collected.


3. Work with a private child support collection agency.

Private child support collection agencies can help you collect back-support and even track down your ex-spouse if he/she’s disappeared. Think of them as a cross between a detective agency and a traditional debt-collector.

  • Pros: They tend to be faster than the CSE offices and may be less expensive than an attorney.

  • Cons: Not all the remedies available to a state’s CSE office are available to a private agency. Also, be careful! Most private agencies truly want to do good. But the less-than-reputable ones demand huge upfront fees, take a bigger percentage of the child support they collect than they said they would, or never turn over the money they do collect to the parent who hired them. If you’re considering going this route, do your homework first. Make sure to check references, call your local Better Business Bureau and consumer protection office to find out whether any complaints have been filed against the agency. Also, you’ll want a written contract that says exactly what the agency will do to collect your support, the amount they’ll be paid for their services, and the method by which the agency will be paid (i.e. will you pay them or do they take their fee from the child support they collect for you?). We’re not steering you away from this option, but we do urge you to learn more before committing to a private agency.


4. Go it your own.

Some parents choose to file their own lawsuit to collect past-due child support (often known as an enforcement or contempt proceeding). There’s no rule that says you have to hire a lawyer to do this for you.

  • Pros: It’s free, and faster than dealing with the CSE. Plus, most courts have free family law information centers (i.e. self-help clinics) that can get you started.

  • Cons: You’re acting as your own lawyer here. You won’t have the benefit of either an attorney or the CSE’s experience (or options) and you’ll be going before a judge on your own. You’ll need to make sure you fill out and file the paperwork correctly, have your ex served properly, and schedule your own hearing. But if your case is pretty straightforward - you have a child support order and it’s not being followed - going it your own might be a route to consider.


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