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In Support Of The Children

December 08, 1988|Clipboard researched by Susan Davis Greene and Dallas Jamison / Los Angeles Times. Graphics by Thomas Penix / Los Angeles Times

The number of Americans living below the poverty line has risen dramatically in recent years, with single women and their children making up the largest segment of the poor. According to 1987 Census Bureau figures, 32,546,000 Americans live in poverty, of whom 80% are women and children. Compounding the problem has been the failure of some parents to make child-support payments on time or at all. A national survey released in 1985 reported that 8.8 million single mothers headed families with children under 21 years of age--61% with court-ordered child support. Of these, 52% received nothing or less than the full payment. But for the millions of single parents faced with the frustration of support payments that never come, help is available.

The federal government empowers state and local social services departments to retrieve child-support payments from recalcitrant parents. In Orange County, it is the Family Support Division of the district attorney's office that provides free assistance to county residents who ask for it. In September alone (a typical month according to officials), the FSD received 18,000 pieces of mail and 10,000 telephone calls related to child-support cases or issues.

HOW THE SYSTEM IN ORANGE COUNTY WORKS:

Under the Social Security Act of 1975, the FSD is empowered to assist any parent who lives in the county (regardless of financial status) in obtaining child-support payments. Roughly half the parents in Orange County who are required to make support payments are either delinquent or non-payers, so the main function of the FSD is to enforce existing court orders for support payments. Where no court order exists, the division can also go to court to begin payments. If requested, the FSD can also determine the paternity of a child so payments can begin.

The time from case opening to arrival of the first support payment can vary from as little as 3 weeks to as long as 3 months. Factors include the location and employment circumstances of the negligent parent.

PROCEDURES FOR COLLECTING DELINQUENT CHILD-SUPPORT PAYMENTS

Wage Assignments

Under California law (Civil Code Section 4701 (l)), the FSD may automatically petition the court for a wage assignment (garnishment) for each new child-support case it processes, even in the absence of payment delinquency or non-payment. If a parent is using the services of a private attorney rather than the FSD, wage assignment becomes mandatory as soon as a support payment is 30 days delinquent. Private attorneys may also petition the court for a wage assignment in the absence of payment delinquencies.

Writs of Execution

The FSD may occasionally have difficulty attaching the negligent parent's wages--most notably in cases involving those who are self-employed or frequently change jobs. When this occurs, personal property such as bank accounts, cars, boats and other valuables may be seized and liquidated to collect past-due payments.

Withholding of Tax Refund/Lottery Winnings

The FSD provides the Internal Revenue Service, California Franchise Tax Board, Employment Development Department and California Lottery with the names and Social Security numbers of parents who don't make support payments on time. If a negligent parent has a tax refund or lottery winnings, officials of the respective offices will send the monies directly to the FSD, which then subtracts past-due payments before forwarding the balance.

Real Property Liens

As soon as a child-support order is established, the FSD files the order with the recorder's office in several California counties. This is done to ensure that any properties owned currently or acquired by the negligent parent in the future will have automatic liens against them at the time of purchase.

Other Legal Action

The FSD may take further legal action if no other means of enforcing a child support order are available and it is clear from credit reports that the negligent parent is paying other creditors. The division has the option of filing a civil contempt action in Superior Court, which could result in a sentence of 5 days in jail, a $500 fine or both, for each count.

In cases involving parents who have been unsuccessful in obtaining the initial child-support order because the negligent parent could not be served by the court, the district attorney's office can issue an arrest warrant. The charge is failure to support a child or children. It is brought by the people of the state of California against the parent in question. If found guilty, the individual could face up to 1 year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Also, Congress recently passed legislation that would allow delinquent child-support payments of $1,000 or more to be incorporated in the negligent parent's credit report.

NET CHILD-SUPPORT PAYMENT COLLECTION

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