How Far Behind in Child Support Before a Warrant is Issued?

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In today’s day and age, paying child support can be extremely difficult. However, not doing it can result in a multitude of problems, one of which is the issuance of a warrant for your arrest.

Still, how much child support do you have to miss before a warrant is issued? Is it okay to miss a single payment, or will they instantly result in a warrant? More importantly, what happens if you get arrested, and how can you avoid going to jail? Keep on reading, and you’ll find all the answers you need.

How Far Behind in Payments Do You Have to Be Before You Get a Warrant?

Well, I can’t really give you a defined answer as it wildly differs from one state to another.

Basically, there are some states that issue a warrant after a certain number of days have passed. Other states issue a warrant when you’ve failed to pay a specific amount. So, in the end, it’ll depend on where you are and what jurisdiction you fall within.

To give you a clearer idea about the variation, let’s say you’re from Arizona. If you’re 30 days behind in child support, then the judge can issue a bench warrant if the custodial parent files a petition for contempt.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, if the arrears come up to $3000, then you can find yourself with a bench warrant at any time, and the same can happen once you’ve gone 3 consecutive months without paying in California. Some courts even issue a warrant after 2 weeks of unpaid support.

As such, you need to know what the laws of your jurisdiction are to be on the safe side. Still, is being behind in payments the only reason for issuance of a bench warrant? Let’s take a look.

Why Are Warrants Issued in Child Support Cases?

Let me break it down for you.

Typically, once you start owing child support, the custodial parent will request a support enforcement hearing as well as file a petition for contempt because you’ve failed to follow your court order.

As such, you, aka the non-custodial parent, will be served with a document to attend that hearing, in which you’ll have to explain why you’ve failed to make the required payments. Now, if you fail to attend this hearing, you’ll be held in contempt of court, and the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest.

So, as you can see, the thing that actually results in the warrant is the fact that you didn’t show up at the hearing, not the fact that you own an X amount of money. Nevertheless, there are cases when the judge will issue a warrant just because the amount of unpaid child support is excessive.

Either way, if you happen to get arrested by the police for the warrant, you can end up facing unpleasant consequences, the most serious of which is, of course, going to jail.

So, what exactly may lead to your incarceration, and is there a way to avoid that outcome? Let’s see.

What Happens Once You’re Arrested?

If you happen to get arrested by law enforcement due to your bench warrant, then the story typically unfolds as follows.

First off, you’ll be held in your local jail until a family judge is available to oversee your hearing. This can happen on the same day of your arrest, but it may also take up to three days, depending on when you got arrested.

Typically, if you’re arrested in the morning, then you can have your hearing in the afternoon of the same day. However, if you’re arrested later in the day, then you’ll have to wait until the next court day. And, of course, if you’re arrested on late Friday or on the weekend, then you’ll be held until the court resumes its duty.

As such, it’s always best that you voluntarily give yourself up rather than wait to be arrested, as that can save you a great deal of discomfort.

Anyways, at the hearing, the judge will be trying to determine if you’ve failed to pay due to a legitimate reason or not. Your answer will then decide whether you’ll be held in contempt and whether you deserve to go to jail for it.

Reasons for Being in Contempt of Court

Generally, you’ll be held in contempt if there has been willful non-compliance on your part when it comes to paying the court-mandated child support.

Now, willful non-compliance can be interpreted in two ways.

One, is that you chose not to pay child support despite having the money to do so. Two, is that you’ve intentionally put yourself in a situation that makes it impossible to pay. For instance, you could’ve chosen to become unemployed or deliberately picked a job with a low income that can’t cover your child’s expenses.

In such cases, the court will deem you guilty and punish you in the way it deems best.

However, if you can actually prove that you’ve failed to make your payments for a legitimate reason, such as being disabled or getting unexpectedly laid off, then the judge will put that into consideration before making his final judgment.

Possible Punishments After the Hearing

If you’ve failed to pay the ordered child support, a judge can order any of the following penalties:

  • Increasing your child support
  • Ordering a lump sum payment(s)
  • Requiring you participate in a community service program
  • Suspending state-issued recreational, occupational, or driver’s licenses
  • Wage garnishment, i.e., withholding your income to pay your arrears
  • Placing liens on your properties
  • Demanding you post a bond or another asset
  • Incarceration
  • Issuance of a new warrant if you don’t comply with the order for a second time

Now, you should understand that judges usually don’t like putting the offenders in jail. That’s because they know that an incarcerated parent can’t really make money, which will ultimately only increase the unpaid child support.

As such, they only resort to incarceration as a last resort when all other penalties are deemed futile. That’s why a judge will usually increase your child support until you cover the missed payments or find some other penalty to make you pay.

Still, what if you’re unable to pay due to a disability or some other unavoidable circumstance? Then, the judge will probably decrease your future payments, but you’ll still be obliged to pay the unpaid support as the arrears can’t be modified ex post facto.

What to Do if the Judge Decides Incarceration is the Best Course?

If you happen to be unlucky and the court sees that putting you in jail is the course of action, then you should know that you can still avoid prison. Yup, you read it right. But how, exactly?

Well, once the court makes its decision, it’ll set an amount for you to pay on the day of the hearing in exchange for your release. To put it simply, the judge will tell you you have to pay a certain amount right now or else you’ll go to jail.

Thankfully, the release amount is usually a fraction of the support owed or the full amount. Whether you get the partial or whole amount will depend on how much your circumstances allow you to pay. As such, it’s always best that you provide the court with your bank statements or other documents showing your income/employment status to prove your claim and help things along.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you’re unable to pay the release amount or if you refuse to do so, you’ll go to prison, no questions asked. So, have as much money prepared as possible, or you’ll be staring at a gray cell wall in no time.

What Can You Do to Avoid a Warrant?

If your situation has drastically changed, affecting your ability to make your future child support payments, then you should file a motion/application to modify your child support order before the court tries to issue a warrant.

To illustrate, say you’ve become disabled. In that case, you’ll no longer be able to pay the same amount you were previously able to. Accordingly, you need to modify your court order as fast as you can, or else you’ll start being behind in payments, and the court will eventually issue a bench warrant.


If you fall behind on your child support payments, then the court can issue a bench warrant once a certain amount of time passes or a determined amount goes unpaid. Unfortunately, these amounts wildly vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, which means you need to look up your area’s regulations.

And remember, if you happen to get arrested, make sure to provide the judge with a valid reason for your non-compliance, or else you may be saying hello to the prison warden very soon.