All states, as well as the federal government, protect the well-being of children when their parents divorce. Parents are free to go their separate ways, but this doesn't mean their children need less or should enjoy less. Pennsylvania is aggressive when it comes to child support enforcement. Not only will the state take your federal tax refund if you owe arrears, it also has the full backing of the federal government behind it.
The Tax Refund Offset Program
If you fall behind in your child support payments, the Pennsylvania Automated Child Support Enforcement System – PACSES – will notify the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement that you're in arrears. PACSES is a statewide computer system that automatically triggers the alert. Under the Tax Refund Offset Program, you'll receive a notice from the Department of the Treasury, advising you that the government has intercepted your refund and intends to send it to Pennsylvania to pay down your outstanding child support debt. Your arrears must be at least $500 before PACSES will notify the federal government. If your family is receiving public assistance, this limit is only $150.
Pennsylvania monitors child support payments closely. In addition to PACSES, state courts typically require payment of all child support obligations through income withholding. Before you receive your paycheck, your employer deducts your child support and sends the money to Pennsylvania's State Collection and Disbursement Unit. The SCDU then sends the money to your ex-spouse and your children. Your ex can waive her right to have child support withheld from your paycheck, (References 3 and 5) but you must still make voluntary payments through the SCDU, so if you fall behind, PACSES will have a record of it.
Delinquencies and Enforcement
Before you receive a notice from the federal government alerting you that the Tax Refund Offset Program is intercepting your refund, you'll probably hear from Pennsylvania regarding other enforcement measures as well. You'll receive a notice of non-compliance if you haven't made a payment in 30 days or your payment record is spotty, causing you to fall steadily further behind. Pennsylvania will then place liens against your property, suspend your driver's license and other professional and recreational licenses, and report your delinquent account to the credit bureaus.
It may be easier than you think to fall far enough behind with your support payments that PACSES triggers enforcement measures. Child support is retroactive in Pennsylvania to the date your spouse requests it, usually right after filing for divorce. Your obligatory payments begin accruing on the date she files her request with the court, not when the court orders you to pay. Therefore, by the time a hearing is held and the court grants her request, you could already be several weeks behind.
Even if you remarry after your divorce and file a joint tax return with your new spouse, her portion of the refund may not be vulnerable to interception by the Tax Refund Offset Program. Pennsylvania isn't a community property state, so your current spouse has no obligation to pay any debts you incur while you're married, including child support. If you file a joint tax return, your current spouse can submit Form 8379 to the IRS with the return or shortly afterward, notifying the government that a portion of the refund rightfully belongs to her and should not be used to pay your debt. Normally, Pennsylvania will return her share to her when it receives your refund, but there might be a delay due to processing and red tape.