Past due child support is called “arrears.” It could be a debt you owe to a person, the state, or both. If you owe money to a person, it is usually your child’s other parent or guardian. You may owe your debt to the State of Michigan if your child or child’s household gets public benefits or got them while you were ordered to pay child support.
Your child may be older than 18, but you may still owe arrears. Or, you may be paying current support and also owe arrears. Even if you are up-to-date on current support payments, owing past child support can create problems for you.
What Happens If I Don’t Pay My Child Support Debt?
If you owe back child support, the judge may use different methods to enforce payment. These include:
Withholding money from your paycheck or other income
Placing liens on your real or personal property
Garnishing your federal and state tax refunds
Suspending your driving, occupational, and recreational (hunting/fishing) licenses
Denying or revoking your passport
Contempt proceedings, which can lead to fines, jail time, and other penalties
What If I Can’t Afford to Pay My Child Support Debt?
There are two ways you can ask for a discharge (forgiveness) of your arrears. You can fill out a form asking the Friend of the Court (FOC) to discharge support debt you owe to the State of Michigan only. You can also file a motion asking the court for a payment plan for your arrears and to have some of your arrears discharged. You can do this if you owe the debt to a person, the state, or both. Find out more about these options below.
How Do I Ask for a Payment Plan or Discharge of Debt?
Request a Discharge from the Friend of the Court
If you only owe arrears to the state, and not a person, you can complete a Request to Discharge State-Owed Debt and file it with the Friend of the Court office in the county your child support order comes from. Consider doing this if you think you have good reasons for the FOC to discharge your debt or if you can show it would be very difficult for you to pay the debt. If you owe arrears on court orders in more than one county, you must file one completed form with each FOC office where you are asking for a discharge of state-owed debt. The FOC will consider your request and decide whether to discharge any of the debt.
File a Motion with the Circuit Court
If you owe arrears to the state, a person, or both, you can file a motion with the circuit court asking the judge for a payment plan and to discharge arrears. You can use our Do-It-Yourself Motion to Manage Child Support Debt tool to do this. If you owe arrears in more than one family court case, you must file a motion in each case where you are asking for a payment plan and discharge of debt.
By filing this motion, you are asking the judge to let you pay a set amount towards the arrears for a certain number of months, and then to discharge (forgive) the remaining arrears after you complete the plan.
There are different standards you must meet before the judge can approve the payment plan. The standard depends on if you owe arrears to a person, the state, or both.
Arrears Owed to a Person
If you owe arrears to a person (typically your child’s other parent), the judge can grant your motion only if the person agrees to the payment plan. The other parent can’t be threatened, bullied, or intimidated into agreeing. If the other parent doesn’t agree, the judge can’t grant your motion.
Also, your debt can’t be a result of you deliberately avoiding your child support obligation.
The other parent can respond to your motion by filing a Response to Motion Regarding Payment Plan/Discharge of Arrears. The Response will say if the other parent agrees to the payment plan and discharge of arrears. Even if the other parent agrees in his or her response, you still need to go to the court hearing. To learn more about what to expect at the hearing, read the instructions in Filing for a Payment Plan or Debt Forgiveness of Unpaid Child Support.
Arrears Owed to the State of Michigan
If you owe arrears to the state, the judge can grant your motion only if:
You don’t have the present ability to pay the arrears without a payment plan, and won’t have the ability to pay them in the near future;
Your debt isn’t a result of you deliberately avoiding your child support obligation;
The payment plan will require you to pay a reasonable part of the debt in a reasonable period of time considering your current ability to pay;
The payment plan is in the best interest of the parties and children; and
You served a copy of your motion on the Office of Child Support (OCS) at least 56 days before the hearing.
The OCS has the right to agree to or oppose the plan, and the judge will consider the OCS’s written comments. If the OCS doesn’t provide the judge with any comments before the hearing date, the judge may approve or deny the request for a payment plan or take other action.
The judge may ask the OCS for comments. Or, the judge may appoint someone to review your assets and your proposed payment plan. This person would make a recommendation to the judge about whether to approve your proposed plan. He or she could also propose a different payment plan. The judge can give this person the power to use your assets to complete the payment plan and to monitor your progress. The judge can also order you to pay this person for his or her services.
Arrears Owed to Both a Person and the State of Michigan
You may owe arrears to both a person and the state. The judge will look at each type of arrears separately. If you qualify for a payment plan for one type of arrears but not the other, the judge can grant just one part of your motion.
For example, you may owe $8,000 to a person and $5,000 to the state. If you only qualify for a payment plan for the arrears owed to the state, the judge may allow a payment plan for the $5,000. But, you will not get a payment plan for the $8,000, and no part of the $8,000 will be waived.
If the judge approves a payment plan, the order may list more conditions you must meet. The possible conditions include:
Participation in a parenting program
Drug and alcohol counseling
Anger management classes or participation in a batterer intervention program
Participation in a work program
Continued compliance with your current support order
If the Judge Approves the Payment Plan, Then What?
Once you complete the payment plan, you must schedule another hearing date and provide proper notice. To learn more, read the instructions in Filing for a Payment Plan or Debt Forgiveness of Unpaid Child Support.
At the hearing, if the judge finds you completed the payment plan, the judge will discharge your remaining arrears. If you made most, but not all, of the payments under the plan, it will be up to the judge whether to discharge some or all of the remaining arrears.
What If I Still Owe Child Support Going Forward?
If new child support payments (not debt) are still charging in your court case, you are responsible for paying them, even if the judge granted you a payment plan and discharge of certain arrears. If the current child support amount is too high for you to pay, you can file a motion asking to change the support amount. If you are going to do this, it is best to file as soon as you can. A change in support can't be applied retroactively. To find out more about changing the amount of child support, go to Filing to Change or Get a Child Support Order.
Arrears can be reinstated in some situations. If the payer gets a large amount of money while the payment plan is pending — through an inheritance, a settlement, the lottery, etc. — arrears can be reinstated. Arrears can also be reinstated if a payee who waived arrears owed to them starts to get public assistance while the payment plan is pending. Arrears will not be reinstated automatically. The payee or the state has to file a motion and show good cause.
Finding a Lawyer
You might decide you want a lawyer to help you. If you have a low income, you may qualify for free legal services. Whether you have a low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area. If you are not able to get free legal services but can’t afford high legal fees, consider hiring a lawyer for part of your case instead of the whole thing. This is called limited scope representation. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation (LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer. To find a limited scope lawyer, follow this link to the State Bar of Michigan lawyer directory. This link lists lawyers who offer limited scope representation. You can narrow the results to lawyers in your area by typing in your county, city, or zip code at the top of the page. You can also narrow the results by topic by entering the kind of lawyer you need (divorce, estate, etc.) at the top of the page.