Criminal Attorneys Aren't Just for Criminals

Unpaid Child Or Spousal Support? Learn How A Civil Matter Can Quickly Land You In Criminal Court

by Eva Holmes

Most of the time, child and spousal support enforcement measures are civil in nature. That means that the courts generally go after your money or any assets that you have in order to fulfill your legal obligation to your children. However, there has been a lot of focus in recent years on "deadbeat parents," and the courts are beginning to use a variety of laws to pursue criminal charges against those parents that won't pay up. If you've been letting unpaid child support pile up, for whatever reason, this is how you could end up in jail.

The family court could find you in contempt.

Contempt of court charges should never be taken lightly. While many are considered civil matters, there is such a thing as criminal contempt of court. Judges vary on how they choose to charge those who willfully disobey their court orders by refusing to pay support.

If you're charged with criminal contempt of court for essentially disobeying the judge's order to pay your child or spousal support, the purpose is to punish you. The fines can range from $50 to several thousand dollars, and you could end up serving anywhere from a single day to 6 months or more in jail. You run the risk of losing your job during the incarceration, and you will be saddled with a criminal record that could haunt you down the road as you look for housing, employment, and credit.

Civil contempt of court probably won't result in a criminal record and is often regarded as a method to force you to comply with the judge's order. Many people consider it to be a form of incarceration where you set your own sentence because you can go free if you agree to comply with the judge's order and pay the support.

However, unlike criminal contempt of court, you aren't afforded the same civil rights that a criminal defendant has—including the right to legal counsel. There are also very little limits on how long you can be held for civil contempt. For example, a Pennsylvania man served 14 years for civil contempt rather than pay support to his ex-wife. He maintained that he simply didn't know what happened to his $2.5 million fortune which vanished on the eve of his divorce. He was finally released because a judge concluded that further imprisonment wouldn't induce compliance.

The state could prosecute you under "failure to support" laws.

Most of these laws weren't written expressly with child support in mind, but they are being used to prosecute those who willfully or habitually ignore their support obligations. Because each state's laws are different, the exact charge and penalty that you face will vary depending on your location.

For example, if you "fail to provide support" as defined by Ohio Revised Code section 2919.21(A)(2) and (B) you face fifth-degree felony charges. That can earn you a sentence of 6-12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. In Idaho, however, the charge for willful "desertion and nonsupport" of either children or a spouse without a lawful excuse is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment up to 14 years.

The government could use the Child Support Recovery Act (CSRA) of 1992 against you.

If your case meets certain qualifications, you could find yourself facing F.B.I. scrutiny under the CSRA. In general, this law was designed to address parents who owe child support and spousal support in a state other than the one they live in. The failure to pay has to be judged to be a willful act for the CSRA to apply. The support also has to have gone unpaid for at least a year, or the past-due amount must exceed $5,000.

The first offense that you're charged with under the CSRA of 1992 is only a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in federal prison and a fine. There's no right to a jury trial for this first offense because it is still considered a petty offense. However, each subsequent offense over the unpaid support increases the charges (and the stakes in terms of punishment).

Because of the aggressive way that courts have taken to handling non-payment of support, don't assume that you can handle the situation on your own. Talk to a criminal defense lawyer at a firm like Anggelis and Gordon Attorneys At Law right away about the situation to see if he or she can help you mitigate the fallout and negotiate a better outcome.