Child Support Payments and Incarcerated Single Parents

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No parent plans on going to jail but if you find yourself in that unfortunate situation there are a few things to know about how it will affect your child support payments. It may seem illogical but incarcerated parents can still be held responsible by the courts for outstanding child support payments.

If you're looking at jail time and don't think you'll be able to make your payments you can ask the court to suspend your child support order. Whether you or your ex is the one who'll be serving time in jail you should probably reevaluate the child support order, prior to incarceration.

A 2016 Federal rule ensures that all parents have the right to have a child support order reviewed and potentially modified when life circumstances change, such as in the case of incarceration. The rule also prohibits states from viewing incarceration as voluntary unemployment when modifying a child support order.

While data on the intersection of incarcerated parents and child support cases is difficult to find, one study reported that approximately 25% of federal and state inmates have open child support cases. Another report estimated that 2.7 million children have a non-custodial parent in prison.

Paying Child Support in Jail

An incarcerated parent who owes child support might be concerned about interest accruing on all outstanding child support payments during a prison term. In addition, prison systems are in a unique position to be able to locate child support obligors who have thus far been unaccounted for. An incarcerated parent who owes child support should ask the court to do one of the following:

  • Reduce child support orders during incarceration
  • Suspend child support orders during incarceration

The determination of whether a court will agree to a child support modification during a parent's incarceration is the judge's decision. Only a judge can change or modify a child support order. A court may decide that the child support payments should remain the same during a parent's incarceration.

An incarcerated parent can continue to pay child support while in jail if they have income or assets that can be used to support their child.

Examples of income or assets that may be used to pay child support while a non-custodial parent is incarcerated include:

  • Disability or retirement benefits
  • Dividend interest earned from stock or bond investments
  • Money earned from selling property or assets
  • Money from selling investments including bonds or stocks
  • Rental income

Assistance to Incarcerated Parents

High child support payments may push child support obligors away from child support enforcement upon release from prison. However, there are many things that child support enforcement agencies do more than just take your money they can also assist parents in reintegrating after their incarceration.

A child support enforcement agency should work with other government agencies to:

  • Assist in helping parents find jobs after incarceration
  • Ensure the non-custodial parent maintains a relationship with the child during incarceration
  • Offer paternity tests, if applicable
  • Provide education to non-custodial parents about their responsibility to their children

For Custodial Parents

If you are the custodial parent, you might be wondering how to enforce a child support order if the other parent is in prison. The first step is to file a contempt action. The court will then require the incarcerated parent to either pay support or prove that they are unable to do so. A judge will look at the incarcerated parent's sources of income and assets to determine if they can or cannot pay while they are imprisoned. 

The judge may then modify the support order, but it is also possible that they will leave the order as is. In this case, the amount owed in support will continue to accrue. This unpaid child support is known as arrears, and the non-custodial parent can be later order by a judge to pay this amount owed once they are out of jail and once again employed.

What Happens After Release From Prison?

After a non-custodial parent has been released from prison, the non-custodial parent should do the following:

  • After you've established employment, begin to make regular child support payments
  • Contact the child support enforcement agency that is involved with your case and ​inform them that your incarceration has ended
  • Inform a child support agency of your intention to seek employment
  • Reestablish contact with your children

If a parent is incarcerated and can pay child support, it is in the child's best interest for the parent to continue to make child support payments. However, if a parent cannot pay child support due to incarceration, a non-custodial parent should consider one of the alternatives, mentioned above.

For more information about incarcerated non-custodial parents and child support obligations, speak with a qualified attorney that handles child support cases in your state or refer to your state's child support guidelines.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) Final Rules Governing Child Support Enforcement Programs. Published January 26, 2017.

  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. Child Support and Incarceration. Published March 4, 2019.

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement. Changing a Child Support Order. Updated August 2017.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement. Incarcerated Parents. Updated February 12, 2020.