Need an architect, a haircut, legal services to buy a house, a medical provider, or an education? All of these valuable services have one important thing in common: you need a license to practice these and many other essential professions. Licenses are also required to drive or enjoy favorite recreational pursuits such as hunting and fishing. Most of us cannot imagine functioning without the licensure we require to live, work, or play; but, child support arrears could make this a reality!

Child support is a part of almost every divorce. It is designed as a means to make sure that all of a child’s needs continue to be met after their parent’s relationship is no longer. In most cases, support, otherwise known as maintenance, is ordered as part of the parenting plan as a result of divorce and custody proceedings.

The parent receiving support, the obligee, is often the custodial parent, but each family’s arrangement is different, as is each jurisdiction’s ruling on these matters. The obligor’s amount of ordered support is based on a calculation system which weighs in the parent’s incomes and sets an amount to be paid to the obligee to assist with child-related expenses. Mother or father may be in the obligor’s position, as well as in the role of custodial parent.

So, what happens if a parent is not able to keep up with their payments? Every state has its own set of guidelines to address this hotly-contested problem. Plenty of debate swirls around how much support is sufficient for a child’s needs, how much is fair to withhold from the obligor’s pay, and what to do about unpaid support.

The Child Support Recovery Act (CSRA) puts some teeth into chasing down missed payments by allowing for willful failure (defined as having the ability to pay, but refusing to do so) to pay support to be punishable as a federal misdemeanor. All 50 states may recover funds by garnishing wages, withholding tax refunds, restricting passports, and by taking steps to suspend or revoke professional, occupational, recreational, and driver’s licenses.

States run the gamut on how aggressively they pursue violators. Many states don’t take action against arrears until about four months are past due. Some can step in much more quickly. California, for instance, may begin the process to suspend licenses after 30 days, although a temporary 150-day license may be applied for. Some states, like Kentucky, may require that all arrears are made up before reinstatement, whereas other states, like West Virginia, may grant driving permits to work only if a payment agreement is established.

While some states will allow hearings and take hardships (including disability, illness, rehab, and others) into consideration to delay punishment, many argue that this method will only tie the hands of obligors, making it even more challenging to keep up with payments and avoid an array of consequences.

A petition currently in development directed to Congress argues that in professions like sales, construction, or truck driving, taking away a driver’s license is akin to career suicide, and will make ever catching up or continuing to pay child support all but impossible. One of the 8,000+ signers of the petition stated:

“How is taking away someone’s driving privilege so that they cannot get to work to make money in any way a benefit to a child? Public transportation is not a viable solution when living in a rural area where you have to travel for employment. Driving to pick the child up to spend time with them is also not an option. So once again, how is it that this is in the best interest of any child?”

Others echoed his sentiments, but also pointed to problems in the system that may penalize obligors even when they have paid:

“I’ve been suspended because the state of Illinois didn’t process my payments in time they gave me a six month stayed sentence even though I was ahead of payments but there (sic) system was behind it is ridiculous.”

Clearly, just expecting that every parent ordered to pay support will willingly do so is not realistic. Some parents have earned the distinction of “deadbeat” after failing to fulfill their duty to help support the child they created. Others have good intentions to pay but fall on hard times or find themselves buried under an obligation that makes it difficult to survive.

Few would advocate eliminating child support because it serves a vital purpose in making sure children have the things they need and want as they grow. No child deserves to go hungry or without opportunities because a parent refuses to work or parents refuse to put their differences aside to cooperate in the best interest of the child.

The concept of attaching a penalty for non-payment to something universally valued, like a license, has potential to be enormously effective to force compliance; however, the “big picture” may be missed in doing so because of the vicious catch 22 created by forcing delinquent obligors out of work, therefore unable to catch up to arrears or remain current, in support. More thought needs to be dedicated to how and when to apply these penalties so that in the process of protecting children we don’t actually harm them!


Audrey Cade is the author of “Divorce Matters: help for hurting hearts and why divorce is sometimes the best decision” and the matriarch of a blended family of eight. She is an experienced “divorce warrior” in the areas of co-parenting, step-parenting, parental alienation, and re-marriage, and enjoys sharing these experiences with others who are also committed to raising happy and healthy kids. Audrey’s professional experience is a case manager social worker with the developmentally disabled, families with young children, and homeless populations. She holds degrees in Early Childhood Education, Human Service & Management, and a Master’s in Psychology.