The order to pay child support is just like any other court order, it needs to be obeyed!
If the paying parent has not paid as directed in the order, the receiving parent can go to the court and file an ‘Order to Show Cause’ (which is shorthand for an ‘Order to show cause why you should not be held in contempt of court for failing to follow an order of the court’).
If there is a good excuse for not paying the support, the court may allow the paying parent extra time to make up the back payments. If there isn’t a good excuse for not paying the support, the court can send the ‘supposed to be paying’ parent to jail. Sometimes it might be for a weekend or two, but I’ve seen cases where the judge has sent someone to jail for 6 months or a year.
I also hear people tell me that they are owed thousands of dollars in back child support, but now that the child is 18, they think there is nothing they can do.
I don’t know about all states, but in Virginia unpaid child support creates a judgment that can be enforced by the courts and there really isn’t a limit as to how long the receiving parent can file against the parent that was supposed to pay. I’ve seen cases where the ‘child’ is 40 years old and the ‘supposed to be paying’ parent was brought to court for failing to pay and he was ordered to pay now or go to jail.
UPDATE! The preceding paragraph was true at the time this post was originally written. However there was a change to the law in November 2011 and there is now a 20 year statute of limitations on the unpaid child support obligations. You can read about it here.
The moral of this story? Pay your child support!