What to Do When Your Ex Won’t (or Can’t) Pay Child Support

Your options are few, but here are some strategies worth employing.

Child done with nap in his bassinet
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Andi Kimbrough would have an easier time budgeting if her ex-husband was paying the child support he owes her. Currently, his tab is $11,000, which she doesn't expect to be repaid soon. Her ex is unemployed, and his location is unknown. In fact, there's a warrant out for his arrest.

Kimbrough, 43, is gainfully employed at a local television network in Dallas/Fort Worth and is married to a service director for a car dealership. So she is part of a two-income household, which helps offset the financial challenges of not receiving regular child support for her 14-year-old and 10-year-old sons. Still, it isn't easy. Her household is sending out child support money as well.

Kimbrough's husband has three children of his own: two sons, ages 18 and 15, and an eight-year-old daughter. His ex-wife is trying to get her amount of child support increased. Right now, Kimbrough says, they're paying somewhere between $500 and $600 per month in child support.

"We struggle to pay it already and feel like there is no recourse," Kimbrough says. Those child support issues are one of the main reasons the couple has made a big decision regarding their lifestyle going forward. "We're actually moving out of our house and into an apartment," she says.

[See: Your 10-Step Financial Recovery Plan.]

It would help if Kimbrough's ex-husband paid his child support. It's $500 per month, almost the amount her husband sends to his ex-wife.

Recent national numbers on unpaid child support are hard to come by, but $108 billion in back payments was owed to parents with custody of children in 2009, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Unfortunately, if your ex-partner is determined not to pay child support or has few assets and can't pay, there isn't much one can do. A deadbeat or broke parent can be thrown in jail for not paying child support, but garnishing prison wages won't get you very far. Still, if you are owed child support, here are some strategies that are worth employing.

Keep the other parent involved. If you have primary custody and your ex isn't paying child support, it may be tempting to punish the other parent and prevent him (usually, it's him, but not always) from seeing your child. That's not a good move, says Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay.com, an automated child-support payment platform. (It's free, unless you use premium services such as sending money to a third party, in which case it's $19.99 a month.)

"A lot of parents feel if you're not going to pay, you're not going to be involved in their life, but it works against you," Atwood says. "By keeping them involved in your children's day-to-day activities and the things going on, that helps them stay invested in your children, and if they can't pay you today, at least they're more likely, when they can afford it, to pay."

Shel Harrington, a family law attorney and an adjunct professor teaching family law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, seconds that. "Child support issues and visitation issues are independent of each other," Harrington says. She adds that it isn't right for a child to not see a parent because that parent isn't paying child support, and "on the flip side, a parent should not stop paying child support because the other parent is denying them visitation," Harrington says.

And either parent in this situation could find themselves in legal hot water, Harrington says, even if they feel their reasons are sound for withholding money or visitation rights.

Don't budget for your child support. That is, if your ex isn't dependable. "Never build it into your budget," Kimbrough advises. "Keep it completely separate, and that way if it stops, it doesn't change your day. If it's there, you can let it build up for the necessities that you need for your children."

[Read: The Best Budgeting Strategies for Single Parents.]

Don't run to your lawyer. That is, it shouldn't be your first instinct, Atwood says. Talking things out – and picking your battles – should be. Atwood says she knows of one customer who spent more than $12,000 in attorney fees, fighting with an ex about who would pay for a $100 pair of glasses for their child.