Non-Payment of Child Support in Ohio: Avoid Felony Convictions, Jail or Prison
In Ohio, anyone with custody of a minor child may apply for support from either or both parents. Custodians who receive government support, including food stamps, daycare services, rent subsidies or healthcare for the child often file for support, but requesting support is possible for others as well. Once a suit is filed requesting child support, it will be sent to the parent(s) by certified mail.
You cannot avoid child support by refusing to accept or pick up your certified mail. If you do, another notice will be sent by regular mail, but the court will go ahead with a hearing to set child support, even if you never see the notice and don't appear.
If the court doesn't have information from you about your income, it will use information from the other side, or make an estimate. This might result in a higher support figure than you can possibly pay. You should always show up for a child support hearing and present facts favorable to you.
Once the court sets a support figure, it becomes a legal obligation. If you don't pay, you can be held in contempt and fined or jailed by the court. Your driver's license may be suspended. If you have a professional license for your job, that can also be suspended. Prolonged failure to pay will eventually result in criminal charges.
How Much Trouble Can You Expect if Your Don't Pay?
Any failure to pay may be charged as a first degree misdemeanor offense. This carries a possible jail sentence of 6 months. If you have already been convicted of one such misdemeanor, or if you fail to pay support for at least 26 weeks out of any 2 year period, you may be charged with a 5th degree felony, which carries a possible prison sentence from 6-12 months.
A second felony offense increases the possible sentence to 18 months. It is important to know that your child support obligation doesn't end when you go to jail or to prison. You are still expected to pay support for the months of your incarceration, and if you don't start paying when you get out, you can expect new criminal charges to be filed. It is not a defense to criminal charges that you don't get to see the children, or that someone else is supporting them.
What Can You Do About an Upaid Obligation
Don't ignore it or hope it will go away. Don't expect the court to know that you lost your job, or became sick or disabled. Once support has been set, it will stay the same unless someone asks the court to change it. If you don't ask for a decrease in support when your ability to pay changes, the unpaid debt will just keep piling up.
The court will not backdate any change, so ask immediately for a decrease if your income goes down for any reason. Don't pay anything directly to the children's mother or other custodian, or to the children. You won't get credit for any payment that isn't made through the child support office.
If your child needs new shoes, make an extra support payment and let the custodian buy them. They get shoes and you get credit toward your debt.
Don't stop paying because the custodian won't let you see the children. If you ask the court for a visitation order, you will get one, and it can be enforced through the court, just like a support order. You won't get a break on your child support for that reason, however. If you can't pay the whole amount due, pay what you can, even if it is only $20 per month. It is a defense to the charge that you were unable to make the payment through no fault of your own, but you must have paid what you reasonably could pay to use that defense. If you pay nothing, the court will probably not believe that you did the best you could.
What Can I Do if I've Already Been Charged?
There are some limited defenses to a criminal charge of nonsupport, such as inability to pay. If paternity was never established with a blood test, you may be entitled to ask for one. If you were never served with a copy of the order, and had no way to know about it, you may be able to contest the charge. There may be a mistake in the court's calculations, or you may be able to prove that the other parent lied about your ability to pay.
Even if you have no complete defense, you can take action to avoid a felony conviction or a prison sentence. You should talk with an attorney as soon as you learn that charges may be filed. Don't wait until you have been indicted. It may be possible to avoid a felony prosecution by early action. You should also talk with counsel about action to reduce an unreasonable support order to prevent future charges.