After a court enters an order for the payment of child support, the parent ordered to pay is expected to make payment under the terms of the order. Sadly, and for many reasons, child support is not always paid in full and on time. When child support payments become past-due, a parent is in child support arrears. 

Whether you are a parent owed child support arrears or you have found yourself in the position of owing child support arrears, you need a reputable and experienced family law attorney. Family law attorneys handle matters pertaining to family status, including divorce, child custody, and, of course, child support. 

What Exactly Does Child Support Arrears Mean?

In family law cases, parties are often ordered to pay child support or spousal support. These support obligations, like bills, are usually due monthly. 

And, like ordinary bills, child support debt can be subject to judicial collection if the payor gets behind, or “in arrears” on the payment of support. 

If No Child Support Judgment Was Entered, Can There Be Child Support Arrears?

While verbal agreements should be honored, if a formal child support judgment has not been entered, there cannot be child support arrears. Even if you and your child’s parent agreed in writing, the agreement would not have the force of law to collect child support arrears. 

However, agreements between parents, like settlements negotiated in mediation, can be made orders of the court. If you are not sure whether your agreement is one that triggers child support arrears, contact a knowledgeable California child support attorney for help. 

Is Child Support Retroactive in California?

In California, child support can be retroactive in some cases. This absolutely does not mean that a parent can seek child support all the way back to when a child was born. 

Retroactive child support can be awarded for the time between the filing date of the request for orders and the entry of the judgment awarding child support. In California, parents can only claim retroactive child support for a maximum of three years.

Why Do Parents Get into Child Support Arrears? 

Under California law, both parents have a duty to support their children. California courts use a sophisticated matrix called the child support guidelines to determine the amount of child support. 

Since the mathematical formula used with the child support guidelines to calculate child support is based on both parents’ incomes, the award amount is presumed to be proper. This means that the court expects the paying parent to be able to afford the support payment given their total income at the time the award is calculated.

Unfortunately, some parents do not realize they can ask the court to change their child support award if their circumstances change. An attorney with experience with modifications of orders in California can help a parent who loses a job or whose pay decreases after child support is ordered. 

Of course, loss of income is not the only reason parents get into child support arrears. But if a court finds that a parent willfully refused to pay without good cause, they can face penalties. 

What Are the Penalties for Child Support Arrears?

Getting into child support arrears can put parents at risk of serious penalties. Even the seemingly “minor” penalties, like interest, can accrue to a significant balance. 

Interest on Child Support Arrears in California

In California, a parent who falls behind on payment of child support must pay interest on the balance that is past-due, in addition to the original amount owed. The interest is mandatory under the law and it cannot be waived by a judge. 

For child support due on or after January 1, 1983, the legal interest rate for past-due child support payments is 10%. Before, the interest rate was 7%. 

Once a parent gets into arrears, the court may order wage assignment (garnish your paycheck). The court’s order may include an amount over the monthly child support to pay toward the arrears. Until the arrears are fully paid, interest continues to accrue. 

Liens and License Suspensions

If a parent falls behind on child support and a local child support agency (LCSA) is involved, penalties can be severe. 

In California, the LCSA can:

  • Put a lien on real estate and bank accounts held in California
  • Intercept a parent’s tax refunds, unemployment, disability, or worker’s compensation
  • Suspend any license held by the parent (driver’s license, professional license, etc.)

A skilled family law attorney can help you handle your child support arrears case and potentially avoid severe penalties like these.