If a parent doesn't pay for child support, can child visitation be stopped?

When a divorce or separation occurs, many parents face the difficult task of establishing custody, child visitation, and child support agreements. Although some parents are able to determine these arrangements on their own, many couples will turn to the courts for help.

When determining custody and child support rights, the court will make its decision based on the best interests of the child. Among the many factors that the court evaluates are the child’s age, the child’s physical and mental health, the parents’ physical and mental health, the emotional ties between the child and her parents, the stability of the home environment, and the child's preference.

Child Visitation and Custody Determinations

There are two types of custody determinations: legal and physical custody. Legal custody involves the right and responsibility to make decisions about the upbringing of the child. This encompasses decisions regarding issues such as education, medical care, and religion. Physical custody involves the right of a parent to have the child live with him. After reviewing the best interests of the child, the court may award sole or joint custody to either or both parents. The court may also determine child support payments at this time.

California law supplies guidelines to the court for setting the amount of child support payments. The amount of support is based on a parent’s financial needs, each parent’s net disposable monthly income (including wages, tips, rental income, disability, etc.), and the amount of time each parent cares for the child. For example, if one parent is awarded sole legal or physical custody, the other parent is usually obligated to make child support payments to the custodial parent. When joint custody is awarded, the child support payments will vary depending on how much time the child spends with each parent. Child support payments are usually owed until one of the following occurs: the child reaches the age of majority, the child is on active military duty, the court determines that the child is emancipated, or the parents’ rights and responsibilities are terminated. 

Child Visitation and Child Support Payments

Because child support and visitation are two separate issues, a parent who does not pay the required child support cannot be denied visitation with the child. Although visitation may be modified with the consent of both parents or by the court, it is unlikely that the court will completely sever visits between the delinquent parent and the child. The court encourages the development of meaningful relationships between both parents and the child through continuous contact. In fact, if the parent who is owed payments prevents the other parent from visiting with the child, the parent who owes child support could ask the court to modify custody agreements in her favor.

Although child visitation may not be eliminated, there are consequences if the parent who owes child support fails to make payments. Should a parent not pay the mandated child support payments, the parent’s wages may be withheld through a wage assignment; he may be denied the issuance or renewal of a passport; his credit rating may be negatively affected; he may be denied an issuance or renewal of a driver’s or professional license; a lien may be filed on his property; and his benefits may be used to pay for the owed support. A child support debt never expires and is not eliminated in bankruptcy.