Child support is one of the most misunderstood issues in family law, and these misunderstandings often lead to trouble. One of the most troublesome issues is the question of what to do when one parent is no longer paying the required amount.

The child support system is meant to enforce parents’ obligations to their children, not to each other. The idea is that parents will pay for their children’s needs, including shelter, clothing, food, medical expenses, educational needs and entertainment. These financial obligations continue even when the parent is no longer living with the child, and they exist even if the parent never lived with the child. The state has an interest in seeing that the child’s needs are met, and so the state gets involved in enforcing child support orders when it must.

Colorado uses a complicated formula for calculating child support obligations in a divorce. In deciding the amount to be paid, the court considers all relevant factors, including: the financial resources of the custodial parent and the child; the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage continued; the child’s health and educational needs; and the financial resources of the noncustodial parent.

This last factor can be the most important. Courts don’t want to issue an order if a parent is unable to afford it. Instead, the child support amount is keyed to the paying parent’s income.

When the parent’s financial resources suddenly change, problems can arise for everyone involved. When a parent loses a job or otherwise experiences a steep drop in income, a child support amount that was once manageable can become impossible.

When a noncustodial parent stops paying child support, the custodial parent is left in a terrible position. Assuming the child’s needs are the same, and the custodial parent’s financial resources are the same as when the court calculated the child support amount, the custodial parent can no longer afford to pay for the child’s needs. The child suffers.

Colorado can take several actions to enforce a child support order if a parent is failing to pay. These include garnishing wages, putting a lien on a home, or finding the parent in contempt of court. In some cases, the state can go straight to a parent’s employer and have part of the parent’s paycheck assigned to pay child support obligations.

When a parent fails to pay child support, the unpaid amount can gather interest and become a huge debt. The longer the parent is behind on payments, the worse the situation gets.

The best way for noncustodial parents to avoid this fate is to request a modification as soon as their financial resources change. If they lose a job or otherwise experience a financial setback, these parents should talk to an attorney as soon as possible about requesting a modification.