What to Do If You Can’t Afford Child Support: A Guide for Non-Custodial Parents

As non-custodial parents, many people think, what if I can’t pay child support? In the US, 25% of all children are being paid child support by their non-custodial parents. In 2021, $32.7 billion worth of child support was paid by these parents. 

Providing child support is a legal and moral obligation typically determined by court orders and state laws. Child support services help meet basic needs as well as foster trust and emotional well-being for both the parent and their child.

Legal penalties can be imposed if you are unable to pay your child support. Many people can’t even afford to live because of child support. Fulfilling these obligations is a burden for millions of people.

How Can I Communicate with the Custodial Parent Effectively?

Maintain a respectful and cooperative relationship with the custodial parent, even during financial difficulties. Child support obligations are legal and moral responsibilities, and open communication and collaboration can help both parents with them.

Financial difficulties can happen to anyone, and custodial parents often understand these challenges. You can even modify child support orders through legal channels with the help of the custodial parent until financial stability is regained.

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Be honest and transparent to the custodial parent. Maintain a proactive approach to addressing financial challenges. It’s crucial to share your financial situation openly, listen actively to the other parent’s concerns, and collaborate on finding solutions that prioritize the child’s needs. Respect for boundaries and privacy should be maintained during discussions.

Conversely, don’t engage in blame or accusations. Rejecting the needs and concerns of the parent with custody can impede problem-solving efforts. Finally, never ignore legal child support obligations; seek legal options if financial difficulty exists so your orders can be adjusted as necessary.

How Can I File a Motion to Modify Child Support?

Parents who are not custodial have the right to request changes in their child support order if circumstances have drastically changed that impede their ability to pay the support.

To make sure child-support obligations are fair and reasonable, taking proactive steps is key. Here is a guide that explains how you can request an amendment:

Step-by-step Guide to File a Request for Child Support Modification


Obtain the Appropriate Forms

Contact the court or visit its website in your area in order to acquire the necessary forms for filing for child support modification – generally including the “Motion to Modify Child Support” form.


Fill Out the Forms

Carefully complete and submit the child support order forms, providing accurate information regarding your financial circumstances since its original issuance.


Gather Supporting Documentation

Get evidence of your income, expenses and any changes to your financial status (e.g. job loss or medical costs).


Serve the Other Party

Once your paperwork is in order and documents collected, the final step in serving the other party (usually the custodial parent) with copies of your motion and supporting documents must be served according to state legal requirements – either via certified mail, personal service, or any other acceptable means in your jurisdiction.


File the Motion

Submit completed forms, supporting documents, and proof of service to the court clerk’s office along with any required filing fees.


Await a Court Date

The court will review your motion and set a hearing date; be prepared to attend and present your case as needed at this hearing date.

How Does the Court Decide to Accept a Child Support Modification Request?

When reviewing any petition to change child support payments, the court takes several factors into consideration.

Substantial Change in Circumstances

The court will assess if there has been a substantial change in circumstances that justifies amending an order.

Best Interests of the Child

As always, primary consideration will always lie with safeguarding and the best interests of a child.

Income and Expenses

To determine the ability of parents to pay for child support, the court will review their income, expenditures, and other financial resources.

State Guidelines

To assess whether parents can pay child support, the court will conduct an analysis of their income, expenses, and available resources. Courts follow state guidelines when calculating child support payments and consider these guidelines when determining an appropriate child support amount.

Evidence and Documentation

Both parents must present evidence – financial documents or testimony – as part of the court decision-making process in order for justice to be served.

A request may be approved if it demonstrates there has been an important change in circumstances that warrants modification, with child support orders adjusted to reflect these new terms. If insufficient evidence supports a request for modification, however, then it will likely be denied by the court.

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What Constitutes a Hardship Exemption and Eligibility Criteria?

When circumstances are beyond the control of non-custodial parent, they cannot meet their child support obligations. Eligibility criteria for a hardship exemption may include:

Low Income

Having a significantly low income that makes paying child support unfeasible.


Being disabled and unable to work or earn sufficient income.


Serving a prison sentence, which limits earning capacity.


Experiencing homelessness or extreme housing instability.

Extraordinary Medical Expenses

Incurring extraordinary medical expenses, especially when uninsured or underinsured.

Other Dependents

When having other dependent family members who require financial help – for instance, additional children or elderly relatives.

How to Apply for a Hardship Exemption?


Contact the Appropriate Authority

To apply for a hardship exemption, contact either your state child maintenance agency or court and request more information on the application process.


Gather Documentation

Gather documents that support your hardship claims, such as medical records, disability documentation, income verification documents or evidence of homelessness.


Complete the Application

Fill out the hardship exemption application provided by the child support agency or court. Include all required documentation and be thorough in explaining your circumstances.


Submit the Application

Submitting the completed and supporting documentation of your child support application is crucial – make sure all filing deadlines are met when filing with child support agencies or courts.


Attend Hearings or Mediation

Be prepared to appear for hearings or mediation sessions required by child support agencies or courts should your case require that.

Consequences of Obtaining a Hardship Exemption:

Obtaining a hardship exemption does not eliminate child support debt. The consequences of obtaining a hardship exemption can include:

  • Temporary Suspension: Child support payments may be temporarily reduced, suspended or deferred depending on the extent of financial difficulty for either party involved; custodial parents could receive reduced support payments during this time, if applicable; they could even get no payment whatsoever!
  • Permanent Modification: Under certain circumstances, hardship exemptions can lead to permanent modifications of child support that reflect changes in financial circumstances for both custodial parents.
  • Accumulated Arrears: Although child support payments may temporarily cease or reduce during an exemption period, any unpaid amounts (child support arrears) could still continue to accrue during that timeframe.

Understand that hardship exemptions should only be applied for under extreme financial stress and are rarely granted as standard practice. Non-custodial parents should communicate openly and honestly with their local child support agency regarding potential exemption requests.

Accurate information must be submitted, along with compliance to any modifications or exemptions granted; only then can you ensure you meet your child support obligations to the best of your ability.

How Can I Seek Employment Assistance if You Can’t Pay Child Support?

If you find yourself unemployed or underemployed and unable to find work on your own, seeking employment assistance could help immensely. These programs have proven highly successful at improving incomes and employability for participants as well as decreasing child support arrears while helping avoid enforcement actions against child support arrears.

Examples of Employment Assistance Programs and Services:

Community organizations and government agencies provide training to gain the skills you need.

These services help parents who are not custodial find jobs that match their skills and interests.

Offer guidance and assistance in career planning, as well as helping you to find employment more quickly.

Completing a high school diploma or pursuing higher education through GED (General Educational Development) programs can open doors to better-paying job opportunities.

This service is aimed towards individuals with disabilities. It provides training and supports them to enter the workplace or return.

The government-funded initiatives for workforce development offer services ranging from job placement to retraining and skills assessments.

Benefits of Employment Assistance

Improved Income

Getting a job or progressing in your career can result in a higher salary, which makes it easier for the non-custodial parent to pay their child support obligations.

Enhanced Employability

Employment Assistance Programs help individuals develop skills that are marketable, increasing their competitiveness in the job market.

Stability and Financial Security

A stable job can contribute to financial stability by reducing the likelihood of being behind in child support payments.

Reduced Child Support Arrears

As non-custodial parents increase their income, they can work towards reducing their child support arrears.

Avoidance of Enforcement Actions

By taking proactive steps to address their employment situation, parents who are not custodial can avoid enforcement action, such as wage garnishment or license suspension.

Legal assistance programs are a great way to achieve financial stability, improve your income and fulfill your child support obligations.

What Action Can Be Taken Against Me if I Fail to Pay Child Support?

Parents who are not the custodial parent should be aware that they may face enforcement action if they do not pay child support, or do comply with court orders. It’s important to meet their child support obligations in order to avoid such actions. Here are common enforcement actions that may be imposed:

Wage Garnishment

A portion of the wages of noncustodial parents may be automatically deducted in order to pay child support.

Tax Refund Intercept

You can intercept state and federal tax refunds to pay unpaid child maintenance arrears.

License Suspension

Non-compliance of child support orders may result in the suspension of professional licenses.

Passport Denial

If a parent who is not the custodial parent owes a substantial amount of child support, then their passport may be revoked, restricted, or denied.

Property Liens

Liens may be placed on property owned by the noncustodial parents, including real estate, vehicles or bank accounts to collect unpaid child support.

Contempt of Court

Failure to comply with court orders may lead to charges of contempt of court, which can result in fines or penalties.

Criminal Prosecution

In cases of severe non-payments or evasions, criminal charges can be brought against the noncustodial parents, which could lead to prison time.

Negative Consequences of Enforcement Actions:


Financial Impact

Enforcement action can have a significant impact on the finances of a non-custodial parent, reducing their income and their ability to meet their other financial obligations.


Credit Score

Enforcement actions like liens or legal judgments can harm your credit score.



Enforcement actions may damage the reputation of a noncustodial parent, which can affect personal and professional relationships.



Some enforcement actions such as the suspension of a license or denial of a passport restrict a person’s ability to travel, engage in certain professions, or carry out specific activities.


Relationship with Child

Failing to pay child support can cause strain in the relationship between the parent and child as they may perceive that the child is being neglected.

In order to avoid negative consequences, parents who are not custodial should make it a priority to fulfill their child support obligations. They should also seek help or modifications when facing financial difficulties.

Communicating with the custodial parent, seeking legal counsel, and complying with court orders are essential steps.

How Can I Challenge Enforcement Actions Against Me?

Parents who do not share custodial rights have a right to dispute enforcement actions they perceive to be unfair, incorrect, or illegal. Challenging such measures is essential in protecting one’s rights and mitigating possible adverse repercussions of these decisions. Here is how they can do it:

Steps and Procedures for Challenging Enforcement Actions:


Request a Review of the Child Support Order

You can ask for a review of your child support order if you feel that it is outdated or incorrect. To begin the process, contact your state child support agency. You must provide evidence that your situation has changed to justify the modification.


File an Objection or Appeal

You can either file an appeal or an objection if you are not happy with the enforcement actions, like wage garnishment and property liens. Following the state’s specific procedure is needed, such as submitting an official written objection or appearing at a hearing.


Request a Stay of Enforcement

You can ask for a temporary suspension of the enforcement while you are pursuing your legal challenge. You may need to submit a formal request in writing to a court or administrative body.


Present a Defense

You have the right, if you are facing criminal charges for non-payment or contempt of court accusations, to make a defense. To prepare your defense and to ensure that your rights in court are protected, consult with an attorney.

Benefits of Challenging Enforcement Actions

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Restoring Licenses

By challenging license suspensions and denials, you can regain your driver’s or professional licenses. This will allow you to gain mobility and access to employment.

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Reducing Penalties

If you present your case to the court and demonstrate valid reasons for not paying or complying, it may be possible to reach an agreement or negotiate a reduced penalty.

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Ensuring Fairness

If you believe that enforcement actions are based on erroneous information or that the child support order does not reflect your current circumstances accurately, challenging them can rectify the situation.

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Preventing Adverse Consequences

You can avoid actions taken against you like license suspension, property liens, or imprisonment.

A family lawyer or legal advisor can be a valuable resource throughout the entire process.

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If you are struggling with debt, and cannot meet your financial obligations including child support payments, bankruptcy may be an option for non-custodial parents.

While bankruptcy may provide relief from certain debts, it will not eliminate or discharge child support obligations. What non-custodial parent should know:

Bankruptcy and Child Support Debt:​

Non-Dischargeable Child Support Debt

Child support obligations, both current and past due (arrears), are considered non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. This means that you cannot eliminate or erase child support debt through bankruptcy proceedings.

Managing Other Debts

Bankruptcy may help you to manage other debts, including credit card debt, loans for medical expenses, and tax debts. It can allow you to free up income that could be used for ongoing child-support obligations.

Effects of Bankruptcy on Child Support Obligations:

Automatic Stay

When you file for bankruptcy, an automatic stay is triggered. This stay temporarily halts most collection efforts, including child support enforcement actions.

Payment Plan Modification

Based on which type of bankruptcy (Chapter 7 or Chapter 13) you choose to file, you might be able to reorganize finances and come up with a payment schedule for child support that is more manageable. Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows you to consolidate debts and repay them over a period of three to five years.

Priority of Claims

In bankruptcy cases, child support claims usually receive a very high ranking. This means that child support payments are among the first to be allocated from any available funds in the bankruptcy estate before other debts are addressed.

How to Seek Counseling or Support?

Counseling or support can be a positive step for non-custodial parents who are experiencing emotional and mental issues in relation to child support. They can better deal with anxiety, stress, depression, anger or guilt

You can find some resources and services for non-custodial parent counseling here:

Individual Therapy or Counseling

A licensed therapist or counselor can offer one-on-one counseling to help with specific mental and emotional health issues.

Support Groups

Joining an organization designed specifically for noncustodial parents can prove beneficial.

Online Forums and Communities

There are many online communities and forums where parents who do not have custody of their children can find others with similar circumstances.

Parenting Classes

Parents can benefit from classes that teach them practical techniques and skills to help them navigate difficult situations.

Legal Aid Services

Non-custodial parents dealing with legal issues related to child support may benefit from seeking legal aid services.

Mediation Services

Mediators can help resolve disputes about child support issues without having to go to court.

How Counseling or Support Can Help:

Coping with Emotions

Counseling and support can provide a safe space for non-custodial parents to express and process their emotions related to child support.

Improved Communication

Many child support issues stem from miscommunication between parents. Counseling can teach effective communication skills, reducing misunderstandings and conflicts.

Reducing Stress and Anxiety

Therapy can equip parents with stress management techniques, helping them to handle the financial and emotional stress associated with child support.

Addressing Depression

Counseling is a great way to address the underlying causes of depression, and to provide you with strategies for improving your mood and well-being.

Managing Anger and Resentment

Therapy can assist non-custodial parent to find ways of managing anger and resentment in a constructive way so that these feelings do not negatively affect their mental health and relationships.

Boosting Self-Esteem and Confidence

Counseling helps parents to recognize that they are worth more than their obligations. This fosters a positive image of themselves.

Motivation and Goal Setting

Support services can help parents set and work toward personal goals, whether related to their child’s support situation or other aspects of their lives, increasing motivation and a sense of purpose.

How to Stay Involved in Your Child’s Life?

Parents who do not have custody of their children should understand that child support payments are just one way to show love and concern for the child. Both the child as well as the non-custodial parents can benefit from being involved.

Here’s some advice on staying involved with your child as a noncustodial mother or father:


Maintain Regular Contact

Even if you are not physically present, keep up regular communication through text, phone, or video calls.


Visit Whenever Possible

Plan regular visitation schedules and make an effort to spend quality time with your child in person. Be punctual and reliable in your visitations.


Attend School and Extracurricular Events

Show your interest and support by attending school events, such as parent-teacher meetings and extracurricular activities.


Plan Fun Activities

Create special moments by planning enjoyable activities together, like outings to the park, movies, or hobbies you both enjoy.


Stay Informed

Keep up to date with the life of your child, their friends, interests and difficulties. Show genuine curiosity about their experiences.

Each family and child is different; adapt the tips below according to your circumstances and needs. Making a genuine effort on behalf of your child will have an enormous impact on their well-being and growth.

How to Seek Legal Advice and Assistance

Here are the reasons to consider legal assistance:

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Protecting Rights and Interests

Legal help ensures that your rights as a non-custodial parent are protected. An attorney can advocate for fair treatment, preventing potential legal pitfalls.

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Navigating the Legal Process

Child support matters involve complex legal processes. An attorney can guide you through the legal system, making it easier to modify or enforce child support orders.

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Modifying Support Orders

If you are facing significant changes in your life, such as job loss, health problems, or financial difficulties, you can ask an attorney to modify the child support order to accurately reflect what is happening.

Enforcing Support Orders

If the parent who is responsible for the child does not pay child support, your attorney may take legal action to ensure that the financial needs of the child are met.

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Legal Protections

Parents who are not custodial parents can face a variety of legal issues, including false accusations and disputes about visitation rights. A lawyer can represent and defend you in court.

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Legal Yogi specializes in providing valuable guidance and support to individuals navigating complex legal matters, particularly those related to family law and child support. When you need expert advice on your specific situation, Legal Yogi can be an invaluable resource. 

Our legal team and our collection of resources will help you to make the right decisions. We can also guide you in taking action. Contact us to resolve any legal concerns you may have regarding child support.


Can I Erase Back Child Support?

That is rarely possible. You usually cannot erase debts to the state or to the custodial parent.

Can I see my child if I can't pay child support?

You can see your child. The courts usually treat that issue separately.

What are the consequences of not paying child support?

All kinds of legal action can be taken against you. You could lose your possessions and have your credit rating affected.

What if I've lost my job and can't make payments temporarily?

With the assistance of an attorney, you can modify a child-support order.

Can child support orders be modified retroactively, or do modifications only apply to future payments?

Modification usually applies only to future payments.

Schedule a free consultation about Child Support Arrears

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