When You Can't Afford Child Support Payments

Get Help in Your State

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The child support system is designed to provide children with the financial support they need to thrive. Yet the system is flawed and often assigns more penalties to parents than they, quite literally, can afford to pay.


The media pays a lot of attention to "deadbeat parents." Yet not every parent who does not pay child support is withholding those court-ordered payments out of spite or neglect. Often, parents fail to pay child support because they cannot afford the premiums. For instance, the following email was sent by a mom who is unable to pay child support payments on time and isn't sure where to turn. Unfortunately, this mom's situation is not uncommon.

Angela writes: "I am a parent who pays child support for one child. I also have three other children at home to support and one in college. Because I live out of state, the court decided the maximum for me to pay and did not consider my other children. I am currently disabled and have no income. Meanwhile, child support payments are still due, even while I am not able to work. How do I make it with little or no finances?"

About half of all 13.6 million custodial parents were due child support in 2015. However, only 60% was reported as received. That means that there are many, many non-custodial parents who are not paying their child support dues in full. In many cases, this may be because they cannot afford to make these payments.

Options if You Can't Pay

In cases like Angela's, there is a valid underlying reason—her disability and inability to work—which calls for the re-examination of the child support order. If you are in a similar situation, the first step is to contact the Child Support Office in the state where the child support order was issued. What you'll need to do is file a formal motion requesting a modification due to changed circumstances.

The amount of child support you owe was originally determined using your income and financial assets and obligations based on reports provided at that time. However, circumstances do change. In fact, this can happen many times over the years that you are paying child support.

Keep in mind that it is far better to request a modification due to changed circumstances than to fail to pay child support.

What Are Changed Circumstances?

Either parent can request a modification due to changed circumstances. Examples of circumstances which may necessitate a change in the child support order include:

  • Additional costs associated with raising the child as he or she grows
  • Changes in income
  • Medical expenses
  • Unemployment

Why a Court Order Is Important

For your own protection, it is crucial to have the child support order formally modified by the court. Avoid entering into a non-binding oral agreement with your child's other parent. If there is a future dispute over the amount of money that is owed, any informal agreement may not be recognized as valid or binding by the court (in fact, it is likely that this agreement won't be recognized).

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. How the child support system affects low-income fathers.

  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. Child support and employment services.

  3. U.S. Census Bureau. Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2015.

  4. United States Census Bureau. 44 percent of custodial parents receive the full amount of child support.

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement. Changing a child support order.

By Jennifer Wolf
Jennifer Wolf is a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads.