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Chase for child support

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Lisa Loyd finds herself in a courtroom more often than she would like, but not because she’s a criminal.

The single mom is owed more than $17,000 in child support from her ex-husband – payments she has been fighting for since her divorce more than 15 years ago.

The lack of court-ordered support over the years has contributed to the Crystal Lake resident’s debt.

She has filed for bankruptcy twice, borrowed money from friends several times and accrued thousands of dollars in medical bills.

“Our lives haven’t been easy because of this,” said Loyd, whose son now is 18 years old. “It takes a toll on everything, and the stress is overbearing.”

Besides the unpaid child support, her son has spent the majority of his life without a father.

“He hasn’t seen his father since he was 3 years old, and he doesn’t trust men,” said Loyd, 46. “He is a great son who is working part-time and going to college. He does everything he can to keep his mom from going nuts.”

Mary Morrow, head of the Division of Child Support Services in the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said that parents who willingly pay child support “are usually more involved with the family,” and “the child spending time with the noncustodial parent is more likely to graduate from high school, not go to jail and be successful.”

Loyd is one of millions of custodial parents – the parent with whom a child resides full time – owed some type of child-support payment.

The numbers

More than $35 billion was owed in child support nationally in 2009, according to the most recent data available. Sixty-one percent of that was received, down more than 2 percent from 2007, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.

Those who received any type of payment declined to 71 percent in 2009 from 76 percent in 2007.

Custodial parents received on average about $3,630 in child support payments in 2009, or about $300 a month, data show. In McHenry County, the figure is $310 a month, and in the majority of cases, the mother is the custodial parent.

Currently there are more than 500,000 child-support cases in Illinois, according to the state. About 81 percent of those cases have payment orders, a more than 3 percent increase since 2010.

McHenry County has about 4,100 ongoing child-support cases. More than 88 percent have payment orders, an 8 percent increase since 2010.

The county state’s attorney’s office currently is handling 39 cases of unpaid child support – unmarried parents seeking child support or a custodial parent trying to secure a payment order, said George Hoffman, an assistant state’s attorney. Prosecutors have closed 10 cases this year, and opened three others, he said.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Regional Office in Rockford handles other county cases involving custodial parents who also receive some form of public aid.

Support orders

The amount of a child-support order depends on the noncustodial parent’s net income and the number of children for whom he or she is responsible. Orders generally include money to help pay for health insurance or day-care, among other things.

Statutory guidelines for child support include 20 percent of the noncustodial parent’s net income for one child, 28 percent for two children, 32 percent for three children and 40 percent for four children.

An order goes directly to the noncustodial parent’s employer and the amount is automatically withheld from each paycheck. If the noncustodial parent does not work, the court uses a standard amount based on the state minimum wage.

Once an order is established, the noncustodial parent is required to remain up-to-date on payments or face penalties, and are encouraged to notify the courts of financial hardships before they can’t make payments.

“We have found over the years that if we try to develop a partnership with the noncustodial [parent] and explain what will happen, they tend to pay from the get-go,” Morrow said. “When they feel they are being treated fairly, they are more likely to pay.”

Paying up

The penalties for not paying child support are steep and vary, depending on the unpaid amount and circumstances of each case.

The process begins with a letter notifying the noncustodial parent of nonpayment and includes an explanation of administrative tools to collect child support. Among the secretary of state’s tools is to suspend a driver’s license and seize federal income tax refunds. Denial of a passport, or the inability to renew one, also are possible.

The most successful collection method statewide has been the driver’s license and income tax refund programs, Morrow said.

The state has collected nearly $377 million in unpaid child support since the driver’s license program began in 2008, data show. Violators’ driver’s licenses are subject to suspension if they are more than 90 days behind on child support.

“As you look at what we have collected over the last few years, the doors are starting to close as far as hiding the money,” Morrow said. “These collection methods are starting to work.”

A judgment also can be enforced against real estate and other assets of the noncustodial parent, such as vehicles and bank accounts. Private collection agencies can become involved, and the outstanding debt can be reported to credit bureaus, too.

The stiffest penalty – for those held in contempt – is jail.

Noncustodial parents can be charged with a misdemeanor if nonpayment continues for more than six months or is more than $5,000. The charge is a felony if the amount exceeds $20,000 or nonpayment lasts for more than a year.

“We try to get as much voluntary commitment as we can and work out an agreement with the noncustodial that works financially,” Hoffman said. “We’re not in this to send people to jail, but to get money.”

Dodging collections

Despite measures to collect child support, there still are those who find ways to not pay, experts said.

In the majority of unpaid child-support cases, the problem is that the state first has to find the nonpaying parent, and then prove they are purposely not paying.

“There are a number of people we chase who have made a career out of avoiding being found or appearing to have no income,” Hoffman said. “There are a lot of creative ways for people who want to avoid having to pay.”

Those include being paid for work in cash, commonly called “under the table,” living with someone else so it appears as though they are paying rent, and driving a vehicle that is not in their name, Hoffman said.

“It becomes very difficult for us to track,” Hoffman said. “All the custodial parents can do is keep coming back to court. A lot do end up on public aid, and at the end of the day, they don’t have enough money to live.”

The most important thing for custodial parents to remember is to keep track of payments, or lack of them, experts said.

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