How often do deadbeat dads go to jail?

My knowledge on the subject is limited to applicable episodes of Judge Judy .

Do all states send you to jail if you fail to pay child support under certain circumstances… or do some states never do that?

How bad does it have to get?

Are there other circumstances under which debtors might go to jail? Are there laws that forbade debtors’ prisons or did we just evolve away from that?

All states are required to have child support enforcement procedures in place in order to get federal money. That being said, the stringency of enforcement varies. If you’re a deadbeat dad, you’re better off in Florida than Pennsylvania, for example.

As far as the legal standard, in Pennsylvania, contempt proceedings are (usually) automatically generated by the Commonwealth after 60 days of nonpayment. So, there’s a hearing scheduled, and if you don’t show up, the Sheriff comes and gets you. At the hearing, you are found in contempt if the contempt was “wilful”, that is, if you intentionally did not pay and you had the ability to do so.

If you are found in contempt, the hearing officer or judge will set “purge conditions”. If you fulfill these conditions you are “purged” of contempt. If not, you face further sanctions at a contempt review hearing.

It depends on the judge or hearing officer, but if you’ve been found in contempt and haven’t purged, or have been found in contempt more than once, you could be looking at jail.

Now, we don’t have “debtor’s prisons”. Child support delinquency, being civil, rather than criminal contempt, must allow for the prisoner to hold the key to the jail cell, so to speak. That is to say, the purge conditions for contempt must be such that the contemnor (guy in contempt) can meet them. So, for example, a purge condition might be “6 months in county jail or payment of $1,000 towards arrears, whichever comes first, then wage-attachable employment, regular monthly payments, etc.”

Another remedy, for the guy who is too good for employment, is sentencing him to work-release, where he’s confined except that he can leave to look for a job, and is released once he’s found one. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of backlog for these facilities, at least in PA.

This is important. Across the USA, “debtor’s prison” has been eliminated by statute or state constitution for quite some time now. Legally, the incarceration for failure to pay child support is for contempt, that is, for not complying with the court order.

If you’re looking for a real statistic, bear in mind that not all non-paying parents are reported. I don’t know if you could account for the ones not in the system.

(Neither my kids’ father nor my stepkids’ mother paid their CS, but neither were reported or taken to court over it.)

So if the deadbeat complies with everything that is ordered other than paying his debt he won’t possibly be incarcerated?

Paying the monthly child support amount is generally paragraph 1 of your Contempt Order’s purge conditions. If you genuinely have no income and no means of paying, you should file a petition to modify your child support order. You can’t modify a child support order in a contempt proceeding.

Notwithstanding, the court can’t enter an order with which you have no means of complying. So, if you can prove to the court that you cannot pay (including selling everything you own to do so), your order might be “suspended”, but once a dime falls into your hands, it (ideally) kicks in again.

Yeah, but you’re not really addressing the concept of “willful under/unemployment”

Save a recognized disability, it is going to be difficult to demonstrate that you have no means of complying with the order to pay even a (relatively) paltry sum.

Usually, the court order requires you to pay a statutory minimum (i.e. the amount as if you were working at min. wage) and if you are unable to do so, you will go to court, state as much, and then you usually have to periodically check in and state, either by affidavit or in person, that you have been unsuccessful at obtaining employment.

I used to lock up deadbeats at pretty much every court date back when I did child support enforcement for the state. I worked a circuit of multiple counties, often before the same judge. All child support cases in a particular county would be set on the same day, usually a motion day. I’d fill the courtroom with defendants. Judge would let me pick any of my cases to go first, and I’d always pick the worst deadbeat of the lot. We’d have a short trial, he’d be found to be in willful, deliberate, and contumacious contempt, and the bailiff would shackle the guy on the spot and lead him away. The judge would then announce that he’d be leaving the bench to deal with other matters, and encourage the remaining defendants to see if maybe they could work something out with Mr. Oakminster, otherwise he’d be back to hear the next case in a few minutes.

Heh. Talk about shaking the money tree. Had guys falling over themselves to pay up. Especially in the summer time. It’s mighty hot in the deep South, and some rural jails are not air conditioned…

In raw numbers they go all the time, but what percentage of deadbeat dads ever end up in prison? Paradoxically I’d think the more stable deadbeat dads (aka the ones who could pay but just try to get out of it) would be more likely to end up in that situation. The real dregs of society who may have serious substance abuse problems will often live so far off the grid and move around so much that your average civil servant won’t have the means or time to chase all of them down.

This is true. In PA, a court will assign you an “earning capacity” equal to your net monthly income at full-time minimum wage. We also have an “employment specialist” to whom you might be sent to help you look for work and monitor your progress. It’s a good idea, but I wouldn’t get too attached to it, as funding is likely to become scarce with the new gubernatorial administration.

I love this! I’ll pass that along to the county solicitors here; they’d get a chuckle out of it. In the Family Division Courthouse here, we have support contempts pretty much every Friday, and there’s never more than a handful of cases at once, so you lose that “deterrent” effect. But what we do have is the holding cell clear at the other end of the building, so the defendants have to be paraded all the way across the floor in their orange jumpsuits and ankle and wrist shackles, past all the other support defendants who happen to be there awaiting their establishment/modification hearings. The message: “This could be you”.

Just to be clear, I’m not sympathetic with deadbeat parents whether they can pay or not… they lied in their bed; they need to help make it.

Can other kinds of debtors be ordered to do things and be sent to jail if they don’t comply?

“Debtor” implies that a person can’t pay: if I understand what has been said here, you won’t go to jail if you don’t have the funds, only if you are able to pay and refuse. It’s the willful refusal to follow a court order that gets you sent to jail, just like you can get sent to jail for willfully cussing in court when the judge tells you not to.

ETA: You can also go to jail for contempt for refusing to pay fines, so that is another example of how not paying can land you in jail.

If a person genuinely has no income, how does that person hire an attorney to file a petition to modify support? Especially if the person with no income no longer resides in the state in which the order was originally ordered? Paying child support is an obligation that should be met but when it cannot be met, the deck is heavily stacked against the debtor.

Civil contempt is pretty much the last action we can take in the attempt to collect ordered support. In my county, we’re being selective on who we file civil contempt against. It used to be “Not paying? File!”. That ended up being a waste of court time and money. If an obligor has the ability to pay, but chooses not to, we file. Due to caseload levels and other factors it can easily be a year without payments before an obligor is in court. If I know the obligor doesn’t have the means to pay, I push him/her to get their order modified. If they choose not to, I review with an attorney. Sometimes they want to move forward with civil contempt just to get the obligor into court to review for a more equitable order. I have more than a few cases that are basically gathering dust, as we will never be able to collect, never should have been ordered to pay, and bringing them into court is a waste of everyone’s time.

Of the cases I bring into court, jail time is ordered, often not served. The court gives the obligor jail time (between 90 - 180 days), but it’s always stayed with certain conditions. Stays can be monetary or can be actions. I have seen more and more orders with stays of attending job searching workshops or obtain education. I have no problems with that. Sometimes money isn’t the goal, helping the obligor get on his/her feet again ends up being more productive.

We do have criminal contempt as an option if civil contempt doesn’t work. Criminal contempt is very rare, and not handled in family court.

Legal Aid programs. Or filing the paperwork themselves. Court websites make it available and (at least in my state) it’s all helpfully arranged into packets, because there are often multiple forms for a single petition, and with dumbed-down instructions so you don’t miss anything. One IFP (or similar; it tells the court you’re poor and can’t afford filing fees) later and you’ve just asked for reduced child support without spending more than just a little time on it. No money needed.

Child support modification paperwork and the subsequent hearing isn’t so difficult that one would absolutely require an attorney for it, IMO.

It was my understanding that Legal Aid didn’t do divorce-related stuff. Am I wrong about that?

I don’t think every state has it set up like that. A person in our state would be at a severe disadvantage.

Some do, some don’t. There are agencies, public and private, that solicit lawyers for pro bono domestic work. Since protection of children is public policy in PA, the county solicitor’s office represents all child support plaintiffs gratis. The defendants are on their own, but there’s always pro se motions court.

In Pittsburgh, you take your driver’s license, Social Security Card, and health insurance card to the Allegheny Building, and a domestic relations officer fills out the paperwork for you. All you do is sign the modification petition and show up with your hearing. The notice for the hearing tells you everything you need to bring (pay stubs, tax returns, budget sheet, etc.). Unless it’s a “complex” hearing (e.g. one party owns a business, or works “under the table”), the income determination and Guidelines calculation is pretty much garbage-in / garbage-out.


They don’t go to jail nearly enough, apparently. A headline in the Oregonian a few days ago said that there is over a billion dollars in unpaid support payments here. There’s just not enough staff, and no money to update the system to track the deadbeats.