The Virginia Department of Human Services deals with child support through its “Division of Child Support Enforcement” or DCSE. DCSE puts the power of the state government behind parents who have custody of their children and need help getting the other parent to help pay for the children’s needs. DCSE has a staff of lawyers who go to court to, among other things, enforce child support orders.
Child support orders are different from an electric bill because failing to pay them is punishable as a contempt of court. The punishment can include being sent to jail. So if the other parent or DCSE brings a contempt case against you for failing to pay support, it is a serious matter.
Lawyers will often get calls from a parent (almost always the father) who has a pending contempt case. Many times the lawyer will have to say there isn’t much they can do and the parent would be better off if they used the money they would spend in legal fees to work down their back child support. There are situations when a lawyer can make a real difference, such as when there is a dispute as to what has been paid or where the lawyer could be helpful by negotiating a settlement. Where the parent admits what they owe and no compromise is possible, a lawyer may not be able to make much of a difference and the cost of having the lawyer in court may not be justified.
When a parent is behind in their child support, DCSE can file a case in the Juvenile Court to have them held in contempt for failure to pay what their order requires. On the hearing date, a DCSE lawyer and a DCSE clerk will be in court to prove the failure to pay and ask the judge to find the parent who hasn’t paid in contempt. The DCSE clerk will be sworn as a witness and will testify to what DCSE’s records show was due and not paid.
The parent will then have an opportunity to present their proof of any payments they claim DCSE should have given them credit for but didn’t. The judge will decide how much is owed and sign an order requiring the paying parent to pay something on the back support in addition to their regular monthly support amount. The back support is called the “arrears.” The judge may order some jail time but say the parent doesn’t have to serve that time so long as they comply with the new order to pay 100% of their current support obligation plus they amount due each month on the arrears.
If the parent still doesn’t pay, DCSE will file a new case to have them held in contempt. These cases are often called a “show cause” because the parent is served with a summons requiring them to come to court and “show cause” why they should not be held in contempt for not obeying the order. Every time the parent comes in on a show cause, their risk of going to jail goes up. The first time, the risk is low. But by the third time it may be hard to avoid a stay at the jail unless DCSE or the other parent says they prefer no jail time be given.
I have seen a number of cases where the arrears are over $50,000. I have seen cases where DCSE is still chasing the money after the child is an adult. These are called “arrears only” cases and DCSE is required by law to pursue them if the child received any state benefits. If no public money was spent on the child, the two parents can make a deal to settle for less than the full amount of the arrears. But when public money is involved, DCSE has to insist on every last penny being paid.