Bankruptcy offers a fresh start for people who are drowning in debt—but there are some debts that are treated differently than others. If you owe child support, it's important to understand how bankruptcy affects that specific debt.

Does bankruptcy halt your current or past-due support payments?

No, the bankruptcy won't stop your ongoing support payments. Once you file your bankruptcy petition, an automatic stay goes into effect that stops creditors from calling you and halts any collection actions or other adverse events based on past-due debts (like having your utilities cut off). But there are certain monthly bills you need to continue to pay:

  • current monthly utility payments
  • current rent or mortgage payments
  • property taxes  
  • insurance premiums
  • current car payments
  • spousal and child support

In addition, there's no automatic stay that stops collections for child support arrears. That means that if payments are being taken directly from your pay, they will continue. In addition, you can still be affected by any new order that gets issued by the family court regarding your arrears.

What if you really can't afford to pay the arrears or the current child support payments?

Bankruptcy and child support are two different legal issues, so the bankruptcy trustee can't issue an order that changes the amount of support you owe.

You do have options for dealing with your support arrears and current payments. Your bankruptcy attorney may be able to offer you a certain amount of assistance, even if he or she doesn't directly handle other legal issues, like family law. (If your bankruptcy attorney also handles family law issues, you can use the same attorney for both the bankruptcy and the child support cases. If not, you'll need to hire a second attorney, one who specializes in family law issues, to help with the child support.)

The family court judge has the power to adjust your child support payments and even address the arrears, but you need to provide clear and convincing evidence that you can't afford the payments. Since you won't have the same amount of debt or payments that you had prior to filing bankruptcy, this may be hard to do.

This is where your bankruptcy lawyer may be able to help. He or she can help you list all your necessary expenses, showing that you don't have the available funds to pay such high support. If you were forced into bankruptcy due to something that drastically altered your income, like a job loss or a demotion, you may be able to convince the judge to lower your support payments and even forgive part of the arrears.

If your support payments are lowered, how will that affect your bankruptcy?

If your support payments are reduced, it's important to let your bankruptcy attorney know right away because you need to notify the bankruptcy court of the change. While that could affect the bankruptcy trustee's determination about whether or not you can afford to repay some of your debts, it's unlikely. If your income is limited enough to convince a judge to lower the support, it's probably not going to affect your bankruptcy either. You still need to report the change in circumstances—otherwise, it's considered bankruptcy fraud. 

If child support becomes an issue during your bankruptcy, it's important to make sure that your bankruptcy attorney is kept informed of any changes if he or she isn't also handling that issue as well. For more specific advice on your situation, contact an attorney in your area promptly.