What is a support order?

In general legal terms an order is a command entered by a judge instructing parties to take some action or face penalties for violation of the order. A support order is an order of a court to pay child support, alimony, spousal support or some other type of family maintenance. The support order is usually incident to an action for divorce, legal separation or paternity, and is generally paid on a monthly basis.

Types of Support

In most states, a child is legally entitled to receive financial support from his or her parents from birth until the age of 18. This is true whether the parents are married, separated or never married. Courts use child support orders to outline the financial terms of child support. This includes payment amounts and times, and how an enforcement or collection action can be taken against a parent who has failed to meet his or her support obligations.

Another type of support is spousal support, which is a monthly payment of money made from one spouse to the other. It some states it’s called alimony and in others it’s called spousal support. The court may order spousal support to be paid before the divorce is final, after the divorce, or both. In most cases, the court orders spousal support for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time.

Enforcement of a Support Order

Enforcement of a support order is different from enforcement of money judgments, mainly because the support order is continuing in nature. Also, support orders are not considered money judgments from civil cases, so they are not considered debt. Therefore, support orders are not included in the constitutional protection against imprisonment for non-payment of debts. A person who fails to pay a money judgment cannot be punished with imprisonment.

However, someone who does not pay child or spousal support can be held in contempt of court. Being in contempt of court can result in the imposition of a criminal sentence and the debtor could be sent to prison. The parent or spouse benefiting from the support order has up to three years from the last payment due date to ask the court to hold the other party in contempt.

Getting Help

Obtaining and enforcing a support order can be difficult, so it’s best to consult a family law attorney before starting either of these processes.