Voluntary Impoverishment: What It Is and What to Do

How to stop your ex from working the system

His time to unwind...
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Voluntary Impoverishment is a form of manipulating the United States system to avoid paying child support. The phrase typically refers to a parent who either earns less money than he or she is capable of earning or who under-reports his or her earnings to the Internal Revenue Service. The following reader question demonstrates just how difficult the issue can be for parents who count on regular child support payments:

Voluntary Impoverishment

A reader asks:

"I believe that my ex-husband is claiming to be out of work in order to avoid paying child support. However, in the past, he has been self-employed, and I suspect that he is either continuing to work under the table or is choosing some kind of voluntary impoverishment in order to avoid paying child support for our kids. What can I do to ensure that my children receive the amount of child support he previously agreed to?"


It sounds like you've made a verbal child support agreement with your ex. If that's the case, then the first thing you should do is contact the Office of Child Support Enforcement. They can help you formally file for child support and establish a legally binding child support order. This way, you won't have to rely on a verbal, non-binding child support agreement with your ex.

The Office of Child Support Enforcement takes voluntary impoverishment seriously. They will look closely at your ex-husband's employment history and financial records, in order to determine the amount of child support that should be paid. If in fact, he is choosing to be underemployed in an attempt to avoid paying child support, they will impute his income—which means that, based on his employment history and level of education, they will essentially base child support on what they believe he ought to be able to earn.

In the new "gig" economy it's not uncommon for larger portions of people's income to come from freelance and side jobs. This also means it's easier for many people to either distort their income or hide it all together. Lying to the IRS about one's income is, of course, illegal, especially if it's done to avoid paying child support. 

If the Office of Child Support Enforcement suspects that he is working "under the table," they may utilize other means of researching his financial history. For example, if he recently made a large purchase on credit, such as a car or truck, they can pull his credit application to find out what he listed as his income.

If you are in the process of waiting for the necessary paperwork to comply, don't hesitate to contact them often to ask about the status of your case. While time-consuming, your extra effort just might pay off in your case worker's attention to detail and his or her willingness to put forth the extra effort needed in order to follow through on your suspicions.