Supreme Court to Rule on Jailing Fathers Who Owe Child Support

Indigent fathers who owe child support but do not have legal counsel may no longer be thrown in jail when they cannot pay.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in March in a South Carolina case where a man was jailed for one year for failing to pay child support. South Carolina is one of a handful of states that jail indigent child support debtors without providing them legal counsel.

According to briefs filed, “The South Carolina Family Court nevertheless has imprisoned hundreds, and likely thousands, of indigent defendants for nonpayment of support without appointed counsel… These defendants languish in modern-day debtors’ prisons after patently unfair proceedings, many of which lack any factual findings. Often the courts do not even inquire into the defendant’s ability to pay their support obligation.”

Though the Supreme Court case will examine the South Carolina issue, Georgia is another state that does not provide lawyers to indigent parents facing contempt hearings for failure to pay support.

Leah Ward Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that it is illegal to incarcerate someone who has no ability to pay.

“We don’t believe in debtor’s prisons in this country, and that’s what we’re doing here in some cases,” Sears told the paper.

The Journal Constitution described the plight of war veteran Randy Miller, who was jailed for four months for failing to pay $4,400 in child support. The paper cites court records saying when Miller lost his job as an AT&T service technician in 2009, he struggled to keep up with court-ordered child support payments for his daughter. He dutifully tried to pay until his home went into foreclosure and he was left with 39 cents in the bank.

Count father’s rights advocate Robert Franklin among those advocating against debtor’s prisons.

“(Miller) continued to put his child first and made his payments until he literally ran out of money. He now has no assets of any kind including a bank account with 39 cents in it,” Franklin wrote in an article for Fathers & Families. “The state’s response to his nightmare? It made it worse by incarcerating him while making his child’s life not a whit better.”

Despite what seems like a common sense right that all citizens of the country should have access to legal representation, Seth Harp, chairman of the Georgia Child Support Guidelines Commission, told the Journal Constitution that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring lawyers for indigent parents “could devastate our system. We don’t pay enough now for the defense of our criminals. If there’s no money for lawyers in child-support cases, then the possible result could be the end of the threat of jail time. And there are many people who deserve to go to jail.”

In his column, Franklin agreed with the notion that if a person is capable of supporting his children and purposefully elects not to, then that person should be punished perhaps even with jail time.

“But the system, as it’s currently set up, makes it entirely too difficult for parents to prove that they can’t pay,” Franklin wrote. “Worse, it makes it next to impossible for them to prove a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant a downward modification of support.”

As Franklin told the Men’s Rights website in an article on child support reform, “The men who are behind on child support are not unwilling to pay, they are unable to pay.”

And yet courts across the country continue to jail fathers for their inability to pay. The Supreme Court will hear South Carolina’s Turner v. Price case in March.

If you need help with a child support modification, contact the divorce lawyers for men at Cordell & Cordell.

Use the Child Support Calculator on for an estimated amount of how much child support you should be paying.


Men's Rights Editor

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