Can't Afford to Pay Child Support?

What to Do When You Can't Afford to Pay the Child Support You Owe

Caucasian mother comforting son
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On a regular basis, I hear from parents who can't afford to pay child support. And it's not just dads. For anyone who might be reading this and assuming that the label "deadbeat" only applies to fathers ... I can tell you that there are plenty of moms who owe back child support, too.

I recently received this email from a concerned mom who is unable to regularly pay the child support she owes. Here's what she had to say:

When my ex and I divorced, the court ordered me to pay child support for one child. However, I have three other children at home from another relationship, and one in college. They all depend on me for support and financial stability, too. But because I live out of state, the judge ordered me to pay the maximum without giving any thought to my other children.
And that's not all ... I am currently disabled and have no income. Meanwhile, child support payments are still due every month, even while I am not able to work. What am I supposed to do? How do I make it with little or no finances? I'm worried that they'll take away my driving privileges or even actually put me in jail. It's really scary to be in this position. And I love my kids! I'd pay the money every month if I could. I miss him terribly!
Angela W.

Unfortunately, Angela is not alone in being a parent who owes child support money that she is unable to pay. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 7,256,000 custodial parents were due child support in 2003. However, only 3,290,000 (or 45.3%) received the full amount.

In many cases, such as Angela's, the paying parent experiences a legitimate change in circumstances that results in the inability to make payments in full or on time. If this happens to you, the first thing you should do is contact the Office of Child Support Enforcement that issued the child support order. Let them know what has changed, and ask for child support modification.

You will probably have to complete a legal form stating exactly what has changed, and provide information about your income and current savings. If it is determined that you legitimately can not pay child support in full at this time, they will likely work out a payment plan with you. From the state's perspective, they would far rather receive less than the original amount than receive nothing at all. 

If you are awarded a modification and your circumstances change, you will be required to resume payments on time and in full. 

In the meantime, speak with your ex openly about the situation, so that the reasons for non-payment, or less-than-full payment, are clear. While certainly not "required," an honest explanation of what has changed can go a long way toward reducing tensions.

Grall, Timothy S. "Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2003." Child Support Reports. Jul 2006. U.S. Census Bureau. 15 Nov. 2006 [].