Understanding consequences of non-payment is important for recipients and payors alike.
In Virginia, child support payments are set forth in a court order. This order will state, among other things, that the person paying child support is required to pay a certain set amount of money each month. Failure to comply with an order of the court can be deemed contempt of court, which may be punishable by monetary sanctions or even jail time.
Contempt of Court
Typically contempt of court in the context of child support is a civil, not a criminal, issue. However unlike most other non-criminal legal issues, “civil” contempt is fairly unique in that it can involve jail time. That being said, the nature of jail time in a civil contempt proceeding is different because the person being sentenced is deemed to “hold the key” to his her her confinement in jail. Specifically, this means that person being sentenced to jail can generally be released upon complying with order of the court. In the context of contempt in child support cases, this means making payment of outstanding child support.
The Mechanics of an Action to Collect Unpaid Child Support
If a party wishes to bring an action to address unpaid child support, he or she will typically file what is called a Petition for Issuance of a Rule to Show Cause. This petition will set forth what specific provisions of the court’s order the defendant has failed to comply with. If the court deems that there is a good faith basis to believe that the order is not being complied with, the Court will issue a Rule to Show Cause (often just called a “Rule” for short). This Rule will direct the defendant to appear in court on a specific date and time to “show cause” why he or she should not be held in contempt for violation of the court order.
At this hearing, the petitioner will present evidence as to why he or she believes that the defendant has not followed the terms of the court’s order. The defendant will then have an opportunity to show that no violation has actually occurred, or in the alternative, that if a violation has occurred, it was not ‘willful.’
If the court deems that the defendant has violated the order, the court can do several things. In child support cases, often times a payment plan may be established to address the unpaid child support (referred to as an “arrearage”). In many cases, the defendant may be ordered to make regular payments toward the arrearage that are in addition to the regular monthly child support payments. The defendant may also be ordered to make payment of attorneys’ fees incurred by the petitioner in bringing the action. Of course, as mentioned previously, jail time may also be imposed.