Incarceration for Non-Payment of Child Support

Handcuffed man standing in courtroom

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Incarceration is a real risk for parents who fail to pay child support. If you've found yourself in this situation, use the tips below to learn more about what the courts typically consider, along with what to do while serving jail time for non-payment of child support.

For non-custodial parents who owe back child support, it's important to recognize the risks. While you may be able to get away with child support non-payment for a while, you can bet it will eventually catch up with you. When it does, the court may decide to hold you in contempt. This usually means fines (on top of what you already owe).

In addition, the court can choose to incarcerate you for non-payment of child support. This means going to jail, and it's the most serious consequence the courts use to enforce child support payments.

When the Court Rules for Incarceration

If a court finds a parent to be behind on child support payments, the judge may have that parent arrested for non-payment. The period of time for incarceration is generally considered:

  • A minimum amount of time
  • The amount of time it takes to ensure the child support payments will be paid in the future
  • Usually not more than six months

Most courts will only consider incarceration after attempting to collect the child support payments through other methods, such as garnishing the parent's wages. Courts generally take the position that it is in the child's best interests to receive care and financial support from both parents, which is why they do not frequently overlook repeat offenders when it comes to child support non-payment.

Factors of Consideration

Before incarcerating a parent for non-payment of child support, the court will typically consider the following factors: 

  • Any reasons given for non-payment; for instance, if a father is questioning paternity, the court may decide not to hold a father in contempt until a paternity test has been completed
  • The amount of child support owed (in other words, the amount still outstanding, including fines and penalties)
  • Whether the non-custodial parent is gainfully employed

During the Non-Custodial Parent's Incarceration

Parents who are incarcerated for non-payment of child support should do the following during their incarceration:

  • Attend parenting classes
  • If not already established, work to build a healthy, ongoing relationship with the child's custodial parent
  • If paternity has not been established, child support enforcement agencies and/or prison officials can assist with obtaining a paternity test
  • If the non-custodial parent is unemployed, try to obtain assistance from government agencies on release programs and/or take advantage of any available educational programs or classes
  • Maintain contact with the child through letters and phone calls
  • Seek the assistance of child support enforcement officials in obtaining a child support modification, if needed

For more information about incarceration due to current or outstanding 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.

3 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. Cozzolino E. Public assistance, relationship context, and jail for child support debt. Socius. 2018;4. doi:10.1177/2378023118757124

  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. Child support and incarceration.

  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Administration for Children and Families. Office of Child Support Enforcement. Handbook on child support enforcement. Answers to your questions.

By Debrina Washington
Debrina Washington is a New York-based family law attorney and writer, who runs her own virtual practice to assist single parents with legal issues.