North Carolina is one of 36 states that allow child support orders to be reduced when noncustodial parents are sent to prison, but incarcerated parents are considered to be voluntarily unemployed in many parts of the country. Financial obligations can add up quickly when prison inmates have no realistic way to make payments, and a 2010 study into the problem ordered by the Obama administration found that 29,000 federal prisoners owed an average of almost $24,000 in unpaid child support.
Finding work and putting their past transgressions behind them can be difficult even at the best of times for recently-released prisoners, and being saddled with crippling debts could prompt those bent on reform to fall back into old and destructive habits. The White House announced new regulations on Dec. 19 that aim to clarify child support rules for inmates and lower recidivism rates across the country.
In addition to ending the practice of classifying imprisonment as voluntary unemployment, the changes require states to inform both custodial and noncustodial parents about their right to have child support orders modified when one of them is incarcerated for more than six months. The changes were first proposed by the Obama administration in 2014 as part of a sweeping criminal justice reform package. It remains to be seen whether or not President-elect Donald Trump will support the measures.
While it may be understandable for child support obligations to go unmet when noncustodial parents are incarcerated, there are many situations where these payments could be made but are not. Experienced family law attorneys could seek court orders to garnish paychecks or seize assets when unpaid child support mounts, and they may contact investigators with skip tracing backgrounds when noncustodial parents attempt to evade detection by relocating and working off-the-books jobs.
Source: Office of Child Support Enforcement, "Realistic Child Support Orders for Incarcerated Parents", June 2012