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Can I sue for child support enforcement in small claims court?

UPDATED: February 8, 2020

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Despite what is seen on TV, small claims court never has jurisdiction over family law matters such as child support enforcement. Any motions to modify or enforce child support payments must be filed with the court that originally entered the underlying support obligation.

Several resources may be available locally to enforce court-ordered child support. Some cities have Family Support Services to help parents resolve child support and child custody issues. The attorney general's office in many states will also provide assistance with enforcing child support obligations. However, their client is still the state, even when they agree to help and the attorney general's office will want to resolve an enforcement suit to serve the best interests of the child.

The courthouse may also provide a list of child support enforcement options. Some judges maintain a set of standing orders for resolving certain types of family law disputes.

Alternatives to Enforcement in Family Court

Because of the frequency with which issues arise involving parents not paying child support, some states have enacted criminal laws called criminal non-support, applicable when a parent refuses to pay their child support obligation. The jurisdiction of this offense differs from a civil suit in that it is usually prosecuted in the state where the court order originated or in the new county where the ex-spouse has moved. Jurisdiction is not tied to the residence of the child.

The only other time that child support enforcement may be decided outside the family court is when an ex-spouse files for bankruptcy. Support obligations are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, meaning an ex-spouse cannot make them go away. Furthermore, their support obligation gets automatic priority, guaranteeing that the payments will be made from whatever assets remain. The custodial parent still needs to be involved in the process, however, to insure that any assets liquidated in the bankruptcy are successfully converted to satisfy a support obligation.

If family court is the only option, a motion needs to be filed to enforce the support obligation. Depending on state enforcement rules, a support obligation can usually be enforced like any other civil judgment. A custodial parent can also request attachment of certain assets and garnishment of the obligor parent's wages. Keep in mind that courts will require strict compliance with any procedural rules to enforce the support order. For more information on how or where to file a motion for child support enforcement, contact a child support attorney.

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