How to Enforce Family Support Orders

Kay Polk, Attorney at Law

At the conclusion of divorce proceedings, the judge will issue a final judgment including orders related to matters such as the division of community assets, child custody, and the financial support of children and former spouses.

Court orders legally obligate the parties to act in compliance with its terms. Ultimately, the court’s orders are pieces of paper containing text. So, what is stopping a party to the litigation from ignoring those pieces of paper?

The legal consequences of failing or refusing to comply with the court’s orders are usually enough to deter people from blatantly disregarding judicial pronouncements from the court.

In the context of divorce orders, there are various methods of enforcing its terms, including:

  • Income withholding
  • Child support liens
  • License suspensions
  • Contempt of court

Withholding to Enforce Support Orders

In cases where a party refused or otherwise failed to honor their child support obligations, the aggrieved party can request the court to enforce the obligation by withholding the noncomplying party’s income. This allows courts to set aside part of the debtor’s future income to satisfy their court-ordered child-support obligations.

When it comes to spousal support orders, enforcement depends on whether the support order qualifies as spousal maintenance or alimony. The distinction between maintenance and alimony is significant because Texas public policy prohibits courts from issuing or enforcing alimony orders for an indefinite duration. Spousal maintenance differs from alimony in duration as maintenance orders are for finite periods of time.

Under Texas Family Code § 8.101, courts may issue an order to withhold the disposable earnings of a spouse in legal proceedings involving the enforcement of spousal maintenance. When it comes to spousal maintenance, court-ordered income withholding is restricted to the amount and duration of court-ordered spousal maintenance authorized by Chapter 8 of the Family Code.

However, if a court order incorporates the terms of a voluntarily agreed-to spousal support obligation, but does not comply with the Texas Family Code provisions for spousal maintenance under Chapter 8, any resulting debts are enforceable as a contract. However, such debts are not enforceable through court-ordered income withholding.

Since Texas law bars courts from issuing or enforcing alimony orders, contractual alimony obligations generally are not enforceable through income withholding. Although Texas law prohibits court-ordered alimony, the parties have the right to create a contractual obligation regarding alimony.

However, a contractual alimony obligation may be enforceable using court-ordered income withholding in the following situations:

  • The contract explicitly authorizes enforcement by income withholding
  • Alimony payments are untimely per the contract’s terms.

Obtaining Liens to Enforce Child Support

When it comes to enforcing child support obligations, a parent can place a lien on the noncomplying parent’s property and assets. A child support lien creates a secured debt for all unpaid child support, including accrued arrearages that arise after notice of the lien was filed. The property attached to a child support lien serves as collateral for the child support obligation.

Under Texas law, a child support lien automatically arises upon the failure to timely pay child support. However, the party requesting enforcement of a child support obligation must first file the lien with the county clerk in order to attach it to the noncomplying party’s assets.

Child Support Enforcement by License Suspension

Child support orders can be enforced by suspending the noncompliant parent’s licenses, including certificates, registrations, permits. Under Texas Family Code § 232.003, courts can order the suspension, revocation, or denial of a parent’s license under the following circumstances:

  • The parent owes three months or more of overdue child support
  • The noncomplying parent was given an opportunity to make payments under either a court-ordered or agreed-to repayment plan
  • The noncomplying parent failed to follow the repayment plan

For purposes of enforcing child support, Texas Family Code § 232.001 allows courts to revoke, suspend, or deny authorizations that are issued by a licensing authority and can expire, be suspended, revoked, forfeited, or terminated by the licensing authority.

Types of licenses that are subject to suspension for child support enforcement under Texas Family Code § 232.001 include:

  • Business, occupational, or professional licenses
  • Drivers licenses
  • Hunting and fishing licenses
  • Licenses required to participate in other regulated activities

Contempt of Court for Unpaid Child Support

A parent who fails to pay child support under a valid court order may be held in contempt of court. In Texas, contempt proceedings can be classified as either civil or criminal, depending on the purpose of the contempt order. In either case, the noncomplying parent is subject to possible jail time and fines.

Civil contempt proceedings are coercive in nature as the penalties are contingent on the parent’s continued noncompliance with the court’s child support order. For example, a parent can be jailed for failing to pay child support until they agree to pay some or all of the overdue support. The parent seeking enforcement of a child support obligation by way of civil contempt must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence.

Conversely, criminal contempt proceedings are punitive in nature because the term for the penalties the noncompliant parent faces is not conditioned on their compliance. Instead, criminal contempt imposes penalties in response to offenses the defendant already committed in the past. Enforcement of child support through criminal contempt requires proof of a parent’s noncompliance beyond a reasonable doubt.

For Comprehensive Legal Representation, Consult Kay Polk, Attorney at Law

If you need an effective legal solution to a family law dispute, you can count on Kay Polk, Attorney at Law to be in your corner. She has the experience and knowledge of Texas family law to help ensure your legal rights and the best interests of your family are protected.

To get started, call Attorney Polk at (713) 234-6260 or submit an online request for a consultation today.