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An estimated $10 billion in child support payments going uncollected

Many parents don't get child support they're owed
Only half of parents get the child support they are owed 01:34
  • R. Kelly's failure to pay $161,000 in child support highlights a $10 billion problem across the U.S.
  • More than 30 percent of child support payments aren't made, and less than half are paid in full
  • Only about half of couples who have children and then separate even have a custodial order governing who'll pay for the kids

R&B singer R. Kelly stopped making child support payments almost a year ago after his former wife came forward with allegations of abuse. He proceeded to rack up a $161,000 support bill that was paid only after spending a weekend in jail.

But Kelly isn't alone. A U.S. Census report estimates that just 43.5 percent of custodial parents get the full amount of support they're entitled to. And more than 30 percent don't receive anything at all.

"It's not easy to get the money," said Highland, Illinois, attorney Nancy Chausow Shafer, whose firm specializes in matrimonial law. "Many people don't want to pay and find a lot of ways to get around it."

Those Census figures come from data going back to 2015. But there's no reason to believe anything has changed. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) said $33 billion in child support was paid for more than 15 million children, or one in five. So at least $10 billion in child support is probably going uncollected, and more when the "partial payments" are taken into account. 

R. Kelly released from Chicago jail 11:09

There's a bigger problem: Only about half of couples who have children and then separate even have a custodial order governing who'll pay for the kids, according to the National Parents Organization. As for the other half, these children may have no rights at all under state divorce laws.

The missing payments exact a toll. According to the Census report, the poverty rate for custodial-mother families was more than 29 percent versus 17 percent for custodial-father families.

But having a judge issue an order of child support is no guarantee of payment, as both the R. Kelly case and these statistics show. "People don't just say, 'You caught me.' Instead, they offer a defense," said Shafer. Among the common excuses are:

Job loss. In such instances, child support payments continue to accrue, amounting to thousands more. Shafer said if you legitimately can't pay, go to court and ask for a reduction.

Cash payments. If you make them, get a receipt. If you can't pay by check, a carbon copy from the money order will show you paid. Payments can also be made through a state office that handles these types of transactions.

No visitation. Lawyers say this simply isn't an excuse. "Child support is a totally separate issue from visitation or parental hostility," said author and attorney Linda Smith, a women's rights advocate.

A battle of attrition

Of course, people find other ways to avoid payment. One is to simply disappear. But moving to another state probably won't stop a private detective or state investigator from tracking you down. Another is to reside in a major city where so many deadbeat parents face charges that your case remains in limbo. Some even avoid payments by filing for disability, experts say.

R. Kelly, jailed over child support, says "people have been stealin' my money" 06:25

Others try to wear the custodial parent down with the time and cost incurred by going to court, serving papers, calling the police and paying attorney fees. Legal fees have become so costly that many litigants on either side of the battle avoid them. Occasionally, lawyers themselves wind up demanding money a client doesn't have.

"As an attorney, I tell clients that sometimes the cost outweighs the benefit," said Shafer. This can be a problem for both sides, including parents who may have lost a job or are fighting battles such as deportation and can't afford any additional expenses.

Help is available

State and federal resources are -- at least theoretically -- available to help. The OCSE partners with local governments to ensure that children living in separate households receive monetary support for their care.

The Title IV-D program, under the Social Security Administration, requires every state to set up an enforcement plan to ensure child support is paid. States often do a good job of garnishing paychecks when it isn't, and three-quarters of child support is collected via withholding money from a parent's paycheck.

But sooner or later many custodial parents decide they can't fight any longer -- particularly when it continues for the up to 18 years during that children are still minors. For some parents, the battles are so damaging to their children that the money just doesn't make up for it.

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