Child Support Enforcement & Collection in Tennessee Family Law FAQs
Child support enforcement and collection in Tennessee divorce and family law including answers to frequently asked questions.
Collecting child support in Tennessee can be very stressful. When a parent who owes child support gets behind on payments, there’s often no simple solution. It costs money to hire a lawyer and file legal action. It may also cause the person who owes support to spend money on a lawyer instead of paying support. In most cases, doing nothing is the only wrong answer.
First, some basic terms. In Tennessee, non-primary residential parents, called alternate residential parents (ARPs), owe child support to primary residential parents (PRPs). Parents who are owed support are called obligees. Parents who owe child support or alimony are called obligors.
A wage assignment is available to anyone owed child support in Tennessee. Wage assignments require employers to take the support out of paychecks before the support obligor receives his or her pay. It’s like a garnishment for child support. Some courts require this assignment right from the beginning of the support obligation. If a parent is late paying child support, many judges will order a wage assignment upon request.
An arrearage is the amount owed for past support. Once reduced to judgment (a sum certain ordered by court), an arrearage can include past child support owed, reimbursement for unpaid expenses, filing fees, court costs, attorney’s fees, and interest. If an arrearage has been reduced to judgment, all orders should include an amount to be paid monthly to reduce the arrearage. In theory, the arrearage payment due monthly should exceed the 12% post-judgment simple interest accrued monthly.
What can a parent owed child support do once a child support payment is late — but before calling a lawyer?
Ask for the payment. Communicate with the parent who owes support. Be polite, but firm. The money is owed. Don’t procrastinate. If payments are consistently late, ask the court to order a wage assignment. If your ex-spouse owes a child-related reimbursement expense, send the documentation (invoice, receipt, or cancelled check) via e-mail or regular mail. Keep a copy of the communication asking for the payment. Again, don’t wait a long time after you incur the expense to ask for reimbursement, even if the other parent is significantly behind on support. From a legal standpoint, the money may still be owed but most judges frown on parents waiting months to ask for the money owed for the benefit of the child.
How late must the payments be before contacting a lawyer?
Opinions differ, but generally you should wait 45 days to 90 days. Any time shorter than 45 days and the PRP may be wasting effort if the late check arrives in the meantime. Wait longer than 90 days and the PRP is wasting time because the payment is probably not coming at all.
Plus, a lawyer may advise writing a letter to the ARP that says to pay up or the PRP will file a court action. If a court action is filed, a parent owed child support can seek filing fees, court costs, attorney’s fees, and interest from the parent who owes support.
Even if you’ve waited longer than 90 days, get started and call your experienced Tennessee divorce and family law attorney. The money is still owed. Delaying rarely makes sense.
What can a parent owed child support in Tennessee do to enforce or require child support payments be made?
To enforce delinquent child support payments, hire an experienced Tennessee divorce and family lawyer and file a petition for civil and criminal contempt. In that petition, the PRP generally asks for the following relief:
- Reduce the arrearage (amount owed) to judgment.
- Determine the arrearage payment amount monthly.
- Reimburse the parent owed support for filing fees, court costs, and attorney’s fees for having to bring the petition to enforce child support.
- Award 12% simple interest on unpaid child support.
- Find the delinquent parent in civil or criminal contempt.
- Order the parent to jail for a period of time or until a certain amount is paid (purge payment).
- Order the delinquent parent to pick up trash.
- Revoke certain licenses issued by the State of Tennessee including hunting and driving licenses.
Jail time? Really?
Not every petition for contempt results in the ARP serving time in jail. But Tennessee courts can and do send delinquent ARPs to jail. Usually, the ARPs who are sent to jail are repeat offenders or don’t have a job to lose. Obviously, no one wants an ARP to lose a job that will prevent the parent from ever catching up with payments.
Some ARPs go to jail because they have the money to pay, but instead spend the money on luxury items and trips. If this is a concern, discuss this with your lawyer.
Why is it legally important that every month child support is ordered it is treated as a judgment in Tennessee?
Under Tennessee law, child support is special. Every month child support is owed, the law treats it as a judgment. Child support is not like credit card debt. There need not be a failure to pay and a separate court determination for a judgment. This means child support orders can’t be modified retroactively — a court doesn’t have the authority to modify prior judgments. Also, child support can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. The money owed is owed until paid.
What if a parent owed child support can’t afford a lawyer?
A PRP owed money should contact a local state agency for help. That agency may work out of the local juvenile court. In some circumstances, a PRP may obtain free legal help for local and interstate child support enforcement.
What can the State of Tennessee do to enforce child support that a privately hired lawyer can’t?
The State of Tennessee has special powers because it is a governmental entity. In addition to the relief listed above, the State can also obtain orders pulling money out of tax refunds, revoking passports, and showing balances owed on credit reports.
What advice is there for a parent behind on child support?
Talk to an experienced family lawyer. Learn your rights to a modification. Can you lower your monthly obligation? Ask your lawyer whether you should talk to the PRP. Do everything possible to pay all amounts due on an ongoing basis. Work out a payment arrangement on the child support arrearage that you can afford. If you can’t afford to pay the child support order, talk to a lawyer about filing for a modification to reduce child support owed and/or setting a payment plan on the arrearage. Consider geting a second job. Slash your spending. Attend Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, usually offered at churches throughout America. Dave Ramsey teaches money management, budgeting, and responsibility. Never delay. Due to the statutory interest charged in Tennessee (12% annually), waiting to deal with this problem can become very costly very quickly.
Where Can I Learn More about Child Support Collection and Enforcement in Tennessee Law?
For updates, analysis, and commentary, check out our Tennessee Family Law Blog category Child Support Collection.