Orlando Sentinel Article Regarding Child Support Featuring Attorney Jonathan Simon

Check's in mail? How to (successfully) collect child support in Florida

So you're a divorced mother of three and, ordinarily, you're a patient person. But it has been months and the child-support check is still not in the mail.

Or maybe you're a single dad who has been trying for years to get your ex-girlfriend to help pay for daycare and diapers for the little darling she helped bring into this world.

Whatever the case, you're a parent who's not getting the financial help you need from the other parent. But Florida law says both parents must support their children until they turn 18, so there are ways to collect.

Here is some information that can help:

First, do you have a child support order?

This is a must. And you can't do much until you get one. This is a legal document signed by a judge that outlines how much money a parent will give to the person who is housing, feeding and providing most of the child's care. Not only will the child support order say how much child support will be paid – usually, on a monthly basis -- it often also requires both parents to share medical costs such as prescription drugs.

If I don't have one, how do I get it?

Some people don't realize this, but the Florida Department of Revenue coordinates and enforces child-support orders at no charge. Many parents, however, hire private attorneys or a legal service to help them navigate what can be a complex and time-consuming legal process. And there are some who file the necessary court documents on their own.

Which is best for me?

That depends on your situation, said Orlando attorney Jonathan Simon, whose practice focuses on family law. Someone with a pretty straightforward situation – you know where the other parent lives and he or she has a job working for a private company or a government agency – can expect to have success using the state's program, Simon said.

If putting together your child-support order takes more work – for example, if you need to verify income for your ex-spouse, who may be hiding money to avoid paying more child support – Simon said hiring a lawyer could be a better choice, especially if you want a faster solution and more personal attention. Also, private attorneys sometimes use private investigators to help. "Clearly, a state agency is not going to do that," Simon said.

How hard is it to do this myself?

This also depends on your situation, including your ability to pay and do research. Parents who want to take on the process themselves must file their requests in court, which means paying filing fees and some other costs on your own. They also have to do their own research and leg work, although many clerks of the court in Florida offer self-help programs for those who file pro se, or without an attorney, said an official with the state Department of Revenue.

How much child support will I get?

This amount is based largely on how many children you have, your income, the other parent's income and what you pay for such things as daycare and health insurance. You can get an estimate by using this child-support calculator, a link to which is located on the state Department of Revenue's website: http://www.alllaw.com/calculators/Childsupport/Florida/.

Is this how much I will always receive?

Probably not. Child support can be recalculated every few years or when one parent experiences a significant change that impacts their income – losing a job, for instance.

The other parent cannot stop paying child support simply because he or she has been laid off, injured or had their hours cut at work. The amount that's legally required is stated in the support order. It is the paying parent's responsibility to have that amount changed if necessary.

I have a support order. What next?

If you can't get the other parent to pay, you can go back to the state, a private attorney or a legal service for help. You can also, on your own, file court papers asking a judge to make the other person pay. Another option is to hire a private collection agency, which will typically charge a fee based on the amount of support to be collected.

How long will it take to get payments?

It depends. It may only take a few days if the other parent complies with the Florida child support order. But if he or she doesn't, it could be months or years before you get all of the money due. Collecting current and late payments can become a much more complicated process if the other parent switches jobs a lot or moves around often.

Carrie Brang, 34, of Kissimmee, has been trying since 2008 to collect back child support for her 5-year-old son. She thinks the state, which is helping collect the money, needs to be more aggressive. Said Brang: "Single parents did not make these children alone and the non-custodial parents need to be held responsible and accountable for the well-being of their children – even if they don't want to acknowledge them." 

Will I get a lump-sum payment for the support that's already late?

Probably not. Often, parents are allowed to pay a portion of what they owe each month on top of their regular child-support payment so that, over time, they get caught up.

Can't someone put my kid's dad in jail to make him pay?

That's usually an option the state and the courts pursue in extreme situations. That's because a jailed father can't work to make money to pay child support. Even when parents are jailed, they often only have to pay a portion of what they owe to get out of jail.

What are other ways to make a parent pay?

The state can suspend a parent's driver's license, take lottery winnings and seize money from their bank accounts. It can also intercept federal tax returns and report past-due support to credit agencies. A judge can force parents to sell assets such as a car or real estate to cover child-support debt.

Can I stop my kids' dad from seeing them until he pays?

No. Although parents often agree on child-support amounts and visitation schedules at the same time, they are two separate issues. If you keep your children from their father without a court order, you could get in trouble for violating the terms of that agreement.

If my child is older than 18, is it too late to ask for child support?

No. There's no statute of limitations in Florida for collecting child support debt. Once an amount for child support is set, the parent who hasn't been paying anything all these years will have to make payments until the debt is met, even if the child is now an adult.

Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at dbalona@orlandosentinel.com, 352-742-5928 or 386-228-5008.