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Should Inmates be Held Responsible for Child Support?


While most disputes over child support focus on the amount of support to be paid and the details of qualified expenses and similar questions, rarely do you hear the case made that a court order for child support is NOT in the best interest of the child.

However, in cases in which the noncustodial parent cannot possibly pay an ordered amount of child support, what good is the support doing? Consider the sticky situation of the noncustodial parent being incarcerated. With child support payments accruing and no income to be paid, should prison inmates be forced to pay?

Child support requirements do not halt if the noncustodial parent is placed in jail or prison, but instead they continue accumulating to be paid upon release from prison. Depending on the length of the prison sentence, these past-due amounts may be tens of thousands of dollars or more. Obviously, the recently released ex-convict has little or no means available to pay these amounts—but that won’t give them a break from the hassle involved with past-due payments.

Collection agencies are poised, ready to pounce upon release. When the ex-convict does find a job, large portions (40 or 50 percent) of wages are garnished, making it difficult to find ways to make ends meet for rent and other necessities. This trouble may create a vicious cycle of re-incarceration: the ex-convict is placed back into prison for failure to pay child support, or for other crimes related to trying to find enough money to pay the debt and keep the authorities at bay.

Consider also the situation of the individual imprisoned for life for murder. A recent case involving a man from Lexington Park, Maryland is a perfect example of the dilemma that life imprisonment creates in divorce. The man was arrested for killing his estranged wife’s boyfriend and shooting and wounding her, and awaits trial in the fall. Now, the wife is a paraplegic and cannot work to support herself or her children.

At their time of separation, the couple had three kids for whom the man was ordered to pay child support by the family court in Maryland. Given the circumstances, he was ordered to continue paying child support while in prison.

The judge at the family court in question took a careful look at the circumstances and it’s likely that many details that went unreported in the local news influenced his decision on the matter; however, two things are clear: If convicted to life in prison, as the state’s attorney is seeking, he will have no means with which to pay child support, and his incapacitated wife and young children will not receive the $400 per month they have been counting on to survive.

In such cases, the child support order works as a hollow benefit: all the law can do is order the non-custodial parent to pay child support, and so it must order that provision. But if the parent cannot pay, the intended beneficiaries do not benefit, though the state can rest easy that their only course of action has been fulfilled. But is making the state happy the point?

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