How do I know if there is a child support bench warrant?
Check your New Jersey child support account at the NJ Child Support website. It will provide current information from probation and tell you what you owe, what you have paid, and whether a bench warrant has been issued. If it is your first time accessing your account, you will need to register. You can also contact your probation worker by telephone or in person to discuss the status of your case.
If there is not a bench warrant, what can I do to avoid one?
If your circumstances have changed since your child support order was entered (such as you have become disabled, you are in jail, or your child is no longer living with the other parent), you should file a motion (See How to Ask the Court to Change/Enforce an Order in Your Case, or Request Another Related Action in Your Case, from New Jersey Courts) or application to modify your support order (See How to file a request to modify a Non-Dissolution “FD” Court Order previously issued by the court, from New Jersey Courts) right away. Don’t delay! Once you miss support payments, the back support you owe will probably not be reduced. Notify probation (up to 45 days before you file your motion or application to reduce support) that you are filing to modify the order. They are much less likely to request a bench warrant if they know you are taking steps to modify the order.
Why was a bench warrant issued?
There are three situations in which a judge will enter a bench warrant for the arrest of a parent who owes back child support or alimony:
Will this affect my driver’s license, my right to work, or recreational licenses?
It might. Driver’s licenses are no longer automatically suspended when a child support bench warrant is issued. But, when you are behind six months in child support payments, driver’s licenses, occupational licenses (such as an electrician’s license) and recreational licenses (such as a hunting license) may be denied or suspended. To suspend your current New Jersey driver’s license, typically, probation must ask for a hearing.
Can I turn myself in or do I have to wait to be arrested?
You can turn yourself in by reporting to the county sheriff’s office and telling them you want to surrender on a child support bench warrant. If you don’t turn yourself in, you will be subject to arrest any time a member of law enforcement stops you and discovers the bench warrant. Also, law enforcement officers may seek you out at your home or work to arrest you on the bench warrant.
Choosing to surrender yourself gives you some control over when the process starts and gives you the chance to bring documents you may need with you.
What should I do before surrendering or being arrested?
Review the section below on preparing for an enforcement hearing. You should review the court documents recommended and gather your document evidence discussed in that section. If you surrender at the sheriff’s office, be sure to take your document evidence with you. While you are held awaiting the hearing, they will hold your papers. Make sure you tell them you will need them for the hearing. They will provide them to you in court.
If you do not plan to surrender, you should still gather your document evidence. Try to arrange for someone you know to bring your document evidence to court if you are arrested on the bench warrant.
What happens once I am arrested or voluntarily surrender?
You will be processed and held until a Family Part judge is available to conduct a hearing. This may take up to 72 hours (three days), but it usually happens sooner. In most counties, hearings are held every afternoon (Monday to Friday). Many parents subject to a child support bench warrant choose to surrender to the sheriff’s office first thing in the morning, hoping to be processed in time to have a hearing that afternoon. Many parents also avoid surrender on weekends and holidays (as the court is not open) and on Fridays (or the day before a holiday), because if they are not processed in time to see a judge that afternoon, they will remain in county jail until the next regular court day. While you are in jail, you will be given jail clothes and be subject to the rules and regulations of the jail. Your clothes and personal belongings will be held until you are released.
Will I get a lawyer?
If the court is considering putting you in jail (called “civil contempt” or “coercive incarceration”) or suspending your driver’s license as possible outcomes at the enforcement hearing, then you have a right to hire a lawyer. If you are “indigent” (your income is very low), the court must appoint a free lawyer before it can consider incarcerating (jailing) you. If there are no lawyers available to appoint for indigent obligors (which is currently true in most counties), then the court cannot incarcerate you. (An obligor is the parent who is required to pay child support to the other parent.)
At the beginning of the hearing, you should tell the court (1) if you want a lawyer; and (2) if you believe you are indigent. The court will decide whether or not you are considered indigent. If the court decides you are indigent, either an attorney will be appointed or there will be no incarceration or driver’s license suspension.
Note that an appointed free lawyer does not charge a fee before representing an indigent client. However, appointed lawyers may be permitted to collect the fee later.
Contempt (Willful Noncompliance)—Issues for the Judge
What happens at the hearing?
After you are arrested or surrender on the child support bench warrant, you will be brought before a judge for an enforcement of litigant’s rights hearing. The two main issues at the enforcement hearing are (1) Did you fail to pay an order that you were capable of paying? (contempt)? and (2) Is incarceration the best way to coerce you to pay now?
Will the judge find me in contempt of the support order?
Contempt requires “willful noncompliance” with the order. “Noncompliance” means that you failed to pay the full amount of the support that was ordered. “Willful” means that either you had the money and chose not to pay, or you unreasonably chose to be unemployed or to take a job paying less money. If the court finds willful noncompliance, it will then consider whether incarceration or another sanction is appropriate.
For example, if an obligor can show the court that he lost his job because he became disabled, the court will find that there was noncompliance (the support was not paid in full), but the nonpayment was not willful, since the loss of income was due to a disability. In this case, the court would not consider incarceration.
Will the judge send me to jail?
If the court finds you in contempt, it will then consider whether to incarcerate you. The court will have to first decide whether incarceration or another sanction is appropriate.
Court Rule 5:3-7(b) describes the sanctions a court can impose when a parent fails to pay the child support ordered. It includes ordering any or several of the following:
You should ask the court to impose one or more of the non-jail sanctions and explain how you will satisfy those sanctions. Think about what you can realistically afford to pay both immediately and in the next few months.
Can I avoid going to jail?
If the court decides incarceration is the best sanction, it must set an amount that you are capable of paying on the day of the hearing to avoid incarceration. That is, before putting you in jail, the court must tell you how much you can pay immediately to avoid going to jail. That release amount should be based on what you can pay. It is your refusing to pay the release amount set by the court that actually results in incarceration.
The probation worker usually asks the court to set the release amount as the full amount of support owed or a specific fraction of that. It will be up to you to focus the court on how much you are currently able to pay. Providing the court with copies of your bank statements (or online bank account ledger) may help prove how much you can actually pay.
What Can I Do to Prepare for a Hearing?
REVIEW AOC DIRECTIVE #15-08
AOC Directive #15-08 (from New Jersey Courts) was prepared by the administrative director of the New Jersey court system to explain the process of child support enforcement, bench warrants, and coercive incarceration. You should review this completely and print it, if possible.
(1) The procedures
The first section is “Enforcement of Child Support Orders—Use of Warrants and Incarceration.” It gives a detailed description of the process.
(2) The probation questionnaire
The second section begins on page 17 and has several forms. The two forms that may be most helpful in preparing for the hearing are the “Probation Child Support Enforcement Obligor Questionnaire” and “Conducting the Ability to Pay Hearing for an Obligor Held on a Support Warrant.”
The questionnaire is supposed to be filled out by a probation worker who interviews you before the hearing. In case that doesn’t happen, you can be prepared by completing the two-page form yourself before you surrender or are arrested. You will provide a copy of the form to both the probation worker and the judge. It requires you to swear to the truthfulness of the answers provided. Note that the last box is available to describe “special circumstances” (for example, disability or unemployment). This box is where you can explain why you have not paid support in full. It can include any financial or other hardship that has made payment of support difficult. Be specific. Give dates and facts about what has happened.
(3) The question for the judge
The five-page section of AOC Directive #15-08, titled “Conducting the Ability to Pay Hearing for an Obligor Held on a Support Warrant,” details many questions that a judge may ask you to get an understanding of your current financial situation. Reviewing these questions and even writing down answers for each question before the hearing may help you or your lawyer present a full explanation of your financial situation. Again, it is helpful to emphasize the reasons that making full payment has been difficult (such as disability, being laid off, business closing, family illness, incarceration).
Gather Documents to Use As Evidence
As described above, the main issues in the hearing will be (1) your income; (2) whether you are disabled; (3) whether you have made a good faith effort to find work, if you are unemployed, or higher paying work, if your income has declined; and (4) what assets you have that could be used to pay support.
Listed below are some documents that can provide the court with information about each issue. They are not all required. They are only suggestions and depend on your circumstances. Make copies of the documents (one for you and one for the court) and keep the documents in a specific and safe place. If you surrender on the bench warrant, take your evidence documents with you. If you plan to wait to be arrested, you should also make plans with someone else to bring your evidence documents to the family court for you when you are arrested.
(1) Documenting income
The following documents can be helpful in documenting your income:
(2) Documenting disability
Be prepared to describe your symptoms and what tasks you cannot perform. The following documents can be helpful in proving disability:
(3) Documenting efforts to find higher paying work
Submit job search logs (a list of jobs you have applied for), if possible. You may include copies of job search logs kept for:
Job search logs should be written at or near the time you applied for jobs and should include:
(4) Documenting assets
Assets are any cash or investments that could be used to make your support payments. Be prepared to supply statements from all accounts, including checking, savings, money market accounts (MMA), certificate of deposit (bank CD), stocks and bonds, investment accounts, IRA, 401K/403B, other.
This information last reviewed: Mar 31, 2021