Child support debt is a serious problem for people leaving prison. Approximately 300 people a month enter prison in New Jersey with child support orders they cannot pay because they do not have an income and do not have assets. This means that the unpaid child support will add up during the time they are in jail, leaving these people with a lot of debt when they leave prison. For example, prisoners in Massachusetts with child support orders leave prison with an average of $20,461 in child support debt. Although the exact number in New Jersey has not been reported, it is safe to assume that people leave prison in New Jersey with around $20,000 in child support debt.
Child Support Orders Not Automatically Suspended
Child support orders are not automatically suspended when people go to prison. Leaving prison and going home are already very hard, and reentering society is made even harder by child support debt. After release, child support debt can cause many problems. When a former prisoner with child support debt finds a job, the State can take up to 65 percent of the person’s paycheck to pay the debt. The State can also suspend a person’s driver’s license because of child support debt. A license suspension makes it even harder for a former prisoner to find or keep a job. Child support debt can also negatively affect a person’s credit rating, and bad credit can make it hard to find housing. Also, a person can be detained in county jail when they are released from prison for non-payment of child support and arrested after release for non-payment of child support. Finally, a person who cannot or does not pay child support can be returned to prison for not meeting conditions of parole.
Prisoners Can Ask Court to Suspend Enforcement of Child Support Order
Prisoners can and should take steps to stop the growth of child support debt while they are in prison. This can be done by filing a “motion for modification” of their child support order with the court. Specifically, a prisoner should ask in a motion to the court to suspend enforcement of their child support order while they are in prison. It is very important that prisoners file this mostion as soon as possible after they enter prison because the court cannot retroactively modify a child support order. This means that a judge can only modify an order from the date that the motion for modification is filed. A decrease in the amount of support or suspension of support will only be from the filing date forward. It will not apply to child support owed but not paid (or child support debt) prior to the filing date. The court cannot do anything to change debt that came from unpaid child support before the filing date. This is why prisoners should file their motions for modification of their child support orders as soon as possible. The sooner a prisoner files the motion, the lower the debt will be when he or she goes home.
Although filing a motion for modification does not guarantee that enforcement of the child support order will be suspended, judges can and do allow modification. To get a modification, a prisoner must be serving a long sentence (usually more than one year) and cannot have assets. When the prisoner is released, he or she must go back to court and file a new case information statement. This case information statement must be filed by both parents. It tells the court about the financial situation of the parents. The court will use this information along with the Child Support Guidelines to determine a reasonable payment for the future. The payment will include a reasonable amount of unpaid child support from the past and current support for the child. Modification allows for setting up a reasonable payment that prisoners reentering society can afford without the buildup of overwhelming debt.
Forms Available on Judiciary's Website
Prisoners with child support orders should file these motions because a modification can make life much easier for them when they are released. The forms and case information statement are available on the New Jersey Judiciary’s Website. Because prisoners do not have access to the Internet, family and friends should locate these documents, send them to the individuals who need them, and encourage them to file a motion.
For more information, please refer to the following Web sites and the sources cited, which were used to write this article:
Making Work Pay: Cammet, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, 2005.
Coming Home For Good: Meeting the Challenge of Prisoner Reentry in New Jersey: Final Report of the New Jersey Reentry Roundtable, December 2003.
Policy Statement 13: Children and Families: Reentry Policy Council Report - go to page 190 (PDF page 215).
This information last reviewed: Jan 19, 2017