By Paula Wethington  / Monroe on a Budget

In most cases, child support payments and disbursements will not be affected by the partial federal government shutdown.

Here’s why: Child support is generally a function of state government, even when parents live in different states.

I’ve seen how this works first hand. Shortly before my daughter turned 18, her dad moved to Texas. I had been living in Michigan for several years at that point. But his child support payments continued to be payable to the State of Ohio, and then paid by State of Ohio to me via direct deposit or paper check, just as happened when we both lived and worked in Ohio. Our divorce proceedings and the child support calculations, after all, were originally handled in Ohio.

That’s also how it works for families whose court orders were issued in Michigan. The employer sends the support payments to the Michigan State Disbursement Unit, and the money then is forwarded to the parent who should receive it, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services Web site.

When does federal government get involved?

While as best I can tell, the child support payment system itself is functioning as usual at the individual state levels.

In fact, I heard back after a call-out on my Facebook page that some families DID indeed receive child support as scheduled during the week of Oct. 1.

There are very specific circumstances in which the federal government is involved in child support matters.

One scenario involves whether that child support that comes to you from a federal paycheck for someone who is now on furlough. As the Detroit Free Press has explained, this could involve thousands of Michigan residents. Child support is not paid out until it is received by the agency handling the case. For all practical purposes, no paycheck = no child support.

The Washington Post explains this detail about those who are required to work:

Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said the administration officials indicated that employees who are required to work would be paid “eventually.”

“They can’t guarantee [the workers] will be paid on time,” Junemann said. “They are pretty comfortable with the statement that everybody who works will be paid eventually.” Those furloughed might be paid, but Republicans could move to block that.

After one week into shutdown, the status is this: There has been discussion and a round of votes in the House on restoring lost pay to the furloughed federal employees, but as USA Today reports, there is still no Senate vote on that matter.

The matter of what happens to the lost pay for contract employees is a separate issue. Washington Post has been looking into that situation, and can only conclude “it depends.”

If you receive child support, the agency that is monitoring your case will keep track of any balances due in hopes of catching up later. But you’ll be stuck without money in the short term, just like anyone else who is waiting on an absent paycheck.

Another scenario involving the federal government involves whether delinquent child support has reached the point where a federal tax refund can be withheld from one parent to help pay past due to another parent. This process is called offsets. As the Michigan DHS explains, “the federal past-due threshold is $150 for cases that receive cash assistance; the non-cash assistance threshold is $500.”

But it’s fair to point out that fall is off-season for tax return filing and refund checks.

Yet another scenario is at the point where the circumstances of unpaid child support are so extreme that they fall under federal law. The U.S. Department of Justice explains it this way:

Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Child Support Enforcement

18 U.S.C. § 228- Failure to pay legal child support obligations

Section 228 of Title 18, United States Code, makes it illegal for an individual to willfully fail to pay child support in certain circumstances.
For one, an individual is subject to federal prosecution if he or she willfully fails to pay child support that has been ordered by a court for a child who lives in another state if the payment is past due for longer than 1 year or exceeds the amount of $5,000.  A violation of this law is a criminal misdemeanor, and convicted offender face fines and up to 6 months in prison (See 18 U.S.C. § 228(a)(1)).
If, under the same circumstances, the child support payment is overdue for longer than 2 years, or the amount exceeds $10,000, the violation is a criminal felony, and convicted offenders face fines and up to 2 years in prison (See 18 U.S.C.§ 228(a)(3)).
Lastly, this statute prohibits individuals obligated to pay child support from crossing state lines or fleeing the country with the intent to avoid paying child support that has either been past due for more than 1 year or exceeds $5,000. (See 18 U.S.C. § 228(a)(2)).  Any individual convicted of this crime may face up to 2 years in prison.
Notably, other than in the specific circumstances aforementioned, child support enforcement issues are handled by state and local authorities, and not by the federal government.  Furthermore, all child support enforcement matters must be addressed at the local or state level before concerns can be raised at the federal level.

What can you do if you aren’t getting child support?

When court-ordered child support is not being paid, that household’s actual income has dropped. Depending on the circumstances, those families may be eligible for financial assistance. I have compiled a chart that lists some of the income brackets for public and charity resources. This includes the school lunch program, which, for now, is running as usual.

The problem is that most services whose criteria are based on financial need ask for proof of household income. If your family has a court order for child support, the assumption is that it will be paid eventually. Taxpayers, government officials, and other sponsors are not interested in their money getting involved in situations where parents can, and should, contribute financially to the child’s needs.

In some situations, the past due child support, if it catches up, must pay back an agency that helped a family in the meantime. That’s why I recommend parents who are struggling financially because of unpaid child support look for resources that are first-come, first-served; or based on special circumstances; rather than primarily on household income. You may find those options to involve less hassle than trying to explain that while yes, there is a court order for child support; you are not actually receiving any of that money right now.

The first-come, first-served possibilities in Monroe, Mich., include:

  • The Lord’s Harvest Pantry, which is located at the Monroe County Opportunity Program offices. While there are many other food pantries in the area, Lord’s Harvest serves all of Monroe County and the staff is prepared to make referrals to other agencies and services that may be able to help your family.
  • The mobile food pantry operated by MCOP and it partners (the last one of the season is Oct. 12).
  • All of the soup kitchen dinners that are run by God Works! Family Soup Kitchen and local churches.
  • The personal care product distributions run by some of the area churches.

Other places to look for help include:

If you live elsewhere, your first phone call should be to the United Way or whatever agency runs either the 211 hotline or a human services hotline for your community. Explain that your family’s income has been affected by late or missing child support and ask for referrals to agencies and services in your area that may be able to help.

Another tip: if someone in your family has a military ID card, Sam’s Club has announced free temporary shopping passes in response to the stateside commissary shutdowns.

The Monroe on a Budget archives also include tips on the paperwork involved, and what to look for, when you start applying for financial assistance.

Updated Oct. 8, 2013.

Part 2

In response to the frustrations parents have been voicing in the comment board, and the fact this particular post immediately spiked in traffic, I have been on the lookout for ANY verifiable news reports or government agency announcements that child support payment woes parents might notice are directly related to the federal shutdown.

The news reports I am finding are that the child support process is handled by state officials and should be continuing as usual; or that any glitches in payments since Oct. 1 are more likely to be specific to your case rather than a general shutdown of services.

This Times-Picayune article dated Oct. 1 is about Louisiana:

Other state and federal agencies aren’t feeling the effect of the shutdown quite yet, but could be if the government stays closed for three or four months. Several of the most critical services that are funded with federal dollars — like Medicaid, child support, adoption and temporary assistance for needy families — will continue without interruption, at least for the time being.

“Many of the federally funded employees in state agencies have been funded at least for the next few weeks. Obviously that could be changed if this drags out for an extended period of time,” said Gov. Bobby Jindal in a statement today.

This article dated Oct. 1, Government shutdown’s impact, is about Texas and is from San Antonio Express-News:

The impact of a shutdown on Texas residents who receive services from various state agencies — from child protection to Medicaid to disability rehabilitation — should be minimal, said a state official.

“Every state agency received a letter from Gov. Perry authorizing them to use state funds as needed, in the event that federal money stops flowing,” said Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. “If the shutdown doesn’t last long, the effect on the public would be minimal. It would only become an issue if it dragged on a long time, because then we would start to have a cash flow issue.”

Part 3

This is an official statement that I got on Oct. 9 in response to the chatter and spike in traffic on this article:

The Michigan child support system “is not impacted by the government shutdown,” Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the State of Michigan Budget Office, told me. In response to comments that I’m seeing on Monroe on a Budget site and my Facebook page, he said, “It’s likely case by case stuff that would be typical.”

Part 4

The partial federal government shutdown ended late in the day Oct. 16. Here is the important detail for this conversation: The Associated Press reports this about the Senate and House votes:

GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN: Ends it immediately, finances federal agencies through Jan. 15. Workers furloughed without pay when the shutdown began Oct. 1 receive back pay.

If your missing child support came from someone who was on furlough with a federal paycheck, he or she will get their missing pay. You will want to attention during the next couple of pay cycles to see whether the child support catches up. If it doesn’t, contact the state agency handling your account.

If your missing child support was dependent on a private party job / contractor whose income was interrupted by the shutdown, it is likely that person may have had either only unemployment benefits or no money for the two week time frame.

It also is possible that your missing or late payment has nothing to do with shutdown, and is for other reasons. For example, if the other parent changed jobs, the court order may not have caught up with the new payroll office yet. If you got money from his or her unemployment checks, the eligibility might have run out.

Whatever the reason is, the state agency handling your account will keep track of the past due and try to collect it. I know that doesn’t answer the “I need money now to pay the bills” scenario. For those needs, you may need to look into whatever public and charity assistance resources can help fill the gap. As I’ve said before on Monroe on a Budget: If you honestly qualify for a program, you are the family it was written for. Use it.

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