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Can I Get Help with my Child Support Case?

 

You can file a complaint through a lawyer if you do not want to file it yourself. You may qualify for free legal help-- call your local legal services program to find out.

If you get TAFDC (welfare), you will automatically get help from the Department of Revenue (unless you have "good cause" for not going after child support).

If you are not on TAFDC, you can apply for free child support services from the Department of Revenue (DOR).

If I file for child support by myself, is there anyone who can help me?

Many Probate and Family Courts have free help for people with low incomes. Some courts have volunteer lawyers, called "lawyers for the day." Other courts have people called “Family Law Facilitators”. All of these people can talk to you about your case and help you fill out court forms. But they will not go into the court room and speak for you.

Call your local Probate and Family Court to see if it has a “lawyer of the day” or “Family Law Facilitator”. If you talk to a "lawyer for the day" or “Family Law Facilitator” ask for help filling out the Affidavit of Indigency, to get the state to pay your filing fee and other court costs.

You can also call your local legal services office for help. Legal services may be able to represent you in court, or refer your case to a free lawyer, or help you file the case yourself. Some legal services programs offer free classes for do-it-yourself divorce.

Many battered women's programs and some courthouses have legal advocates who can help you get a 209A protective order that includes an order for child support.

How can DOR help me?

DOR helps collect child support for all "custodial parents" (parents who have physical custody of their children) in Massachusetts.

A DOR lawyer can file a child support complaint for you and argue your case to the judge.

DOR will get a court order telling the other parent's employer to take the child support out of his wages and send it to the state. DOR will then send the payments to you (or, if you get TAFDC, to the Department of Transitional Assistance).

It is important to understand that DOR only helps with child support. DOR does not get involved with custody or visitation issues.

If you are on TAFDC, the Department of Transitional Assistance will help you get services from DOR.

If you are not on TAFDC, you can still get free child support services from DOR. You can apply online. You can also download an application from the Department of Revenue's Child Support Enforcement website, or get one from your local Probate and Family Court. Fill it out and send it in.

You may have to wait for a long time before DOR gets to your case. You may want to file for child support yourself in the meantime. Call your local legal services office to see if you qualify for free legal help. Or call a lawyer referral service to try to find a private lawyer to help you at a price you can afford.

What if I am in court with DOR on a child support case and the other parent asks for visits the next weekend?

The Department of Revenue (DOR) only handles child support cases. They do not help with custody or visitation.

If the other parent did not serve you with court papers that say he wanted to bring up custody or visits, then the court should not let him talk about custody or visits. This hearing is just about child support. If the other parent wants to ask the court for visits or custody, he has to file paperwork and send you a notice for another day in court so that you can have time to think about what to say and prepare your case.

If the other parent does ask for custody or visits while you are in court for child support, tell the judge:

  • about the abuse issues in your case;
  • that the other parent did not give you any papers saying that he was going to bring up these issues; and
  • that you would like to get legal advice.

If you are working with DOR, you should tell DOR about the abuse right away and remind them when you go to court.

If the judge orders child support, how can I make sure the other parent pays it?

The court usually orders the other parent's employer to take the child support right out of his paycheck. This is called "wage assignment," “income assignment,” or “garnishing.” The employer takes the child support out of each paycheck, just like taxes and other deductions. The employer sends the money to the Department of Revenue (DOR). DOR then sends the money to you. (If you are on TAFDC, DOR only sends you part of the child support. See If I am on TAFDC, can I get child support too?.)

Ask the court to write an order telling the employer to take the child support directly out of the other parent’s paycheck. The judge or the clerk will fill out a wage assignment form and send it to the other parent's employer. If the other parent gets Unemployment, the court will send the form to the Unemployment Office.

The same form can order the other parent's employer to put you and/or your child on his health insurance plan.

My child's other parent is always changing jobs and/or is paid “under the table”. What can I do?

If the judge can not order a wage assignment, then the judge will order the other parent to pay the child support himself.

If you have a support order and the other parent refuses to pay or stops paying, you can file a Complaint for Contempt. This is a complaint that asks the court to make the other parent obey the child support order. You file it in the same court where you got your original support order. There is no charge for filing this, but there is a fee for the sheriff to serve it on the other parent with a "summons" (an official document that tells the other parent that the court is going to hold a hearing. At the hearing, the court may make a new order.). If you have a low income, file an Affidavit of Indigency to get the state to pay the sheriff's fee.

You must come to court on the date on the summons. If the other parent says he has no money and no job, you will have a chance to explain to the judge why you think this is not true.

Example

You can explain that the other parent is working under the table, or working for his relatives, or that he is driving a new car. Bring in witnesses who have seen him working or who have seen that he has money. Bring in photographs of his nice car. Bring in a record of his child support payments to show the times that he missed paying you.

After hearing the case, the judge decides how much child support the other parent owes (called “arrears”). If the judge decides that the other parent owes money or has disobeyed the order, the judge will write a new order. The new order might say the other parent has to pay what he owes by a certain date. The judge might put him in a holding cell in the courthouse, or send him to jail until he pays, or longer. Sometimes parents who have insisted that they can't pay child support are able to come up with money at that point.

If the judge sends the other parent to jail, you can ask the judge to let him out during the day for work so he does not lose his job-- this is called “work release.”

If the other parent has a history of unemployment or quitting his jobs, you can ask the judge to order him to do job search supervised by the Probation Office of the Court. If the judge agrees, he will order him to apply to a certain number of jobs each week until he gets one, and to report back to the court about it.

If the other parent still doesn't pay support after all this, you may need to file another Complaint for Contempt and ask the judge to bring him into court again. If he still doesn't pay, and you keep having him brought in, the judge may put him in the holding cell in the courthouse or send him to jail.

If the other parent doesn't show up in court for the contempt hearing, the judge will probably issue a “capias," which is like an arrest warrant. The county sheriff or a private constable is then supposed to go out and arrest him and bring him into court. This is not the same as a criminal arrest. The purpose of arresting the other parent on a capias is just to make him come into court. If you are low income and have filed an Affidavit of Indigency, the court should pay the cost of having the sheriff arrest the father of your children. But, you should check with the court clerk to make sure you do not have to file a new Affidavit of Indigency to cover this extra cost.

What about private child support agencies?

Once you get an order, you can ask a private child support agency to get the money for you.

Most private child support agencies will not go to court to help you get a support order, but they will try to collect support that has already been ordered.

Private collection agencies may get faster results than the Department of Revenue (DOR). They use high-pressure tactics like:

  • Contacting the other parent directly at his or her home;
  • Talking to the other parent's neighbors and co-workers;
  • Threatening to put liens on the other parent's property; and
  • Contacting the other parent over and over.

Be careful about using these agencies. Private agencies usually keep some of your child support as their fee. Sometimes they keep as much as 40% of all child support collected.. Once you have an agreement with a private child support collection agency, they may even take a cut of child support that you collect yourself or that DOR collects for you.

If you decide to work with a private collection agency:

  • Always ask any private child support collection agency about their fees before you decide to work with them.
  • Make sure that you understand the terms of any contract before you sign it. Some private agencies put things into their contracts that keep the contracts going for a long time.
  • Make sure that they have been in business for a while and they have a phone number and street address where you can contact them.

To find a private child support collection agency near you, try looking in the yellow pages of the phone book or asking lawyers in your area.


Produced by an AmeriCorps Project of Western Massachusetts Legal Services; updated and revised by Jeff Wolf, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Last updated October, 2009


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