Jail for Overpaying Child Support?
In this post I will explain why a Houston man really went to jail for failing to obey possession and child support orders and what it means to you.
News stories are often a source of misinformation. Misinformation from news sources can feed our perceptions of unfairness. Our perceptions of unfairness can get us into trouble. It is not that journalists want to deceive you, but sometimes we all hear the story we want to hear and get stuck in a cycle of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to disregard evidence that contradicts truths we firmly believe or want to believe.
Watch the video below from Fox News Houston. It purports to tell the tale of a father sent to jail for the crimes of paying too much child support and visiting his son too much.
No, You Won’t Be Thrown in Jail for Paying Too Much Child Support.
It is an error for you to be jailed for overpaying child support. Fox News Houston left out that the father owed $2,743.09 in back child support arrears when the mother filed her enforcement. While the case was reset at least once and the father did make his child support current, that was not enough to correct the contempt.
As of June 14, 2013 you can no longer avoid jail simply by showing your child support is up to date at the enforcement hearing.1 The original hearing was set for June 10, 2013, before the repeal went into effect; however, it was reset by agreement to give the father time to pay. Unfortunately, the father had erroneously believed he was up to date before the June 10 hearing and needed time to make one more payment. By the time of the new hearing, the repealed law could no longer help him escape jail.
The father also tried to argue that the missing child support was the fault of his employer. He claimed that an employee incorrectly entered the withholding amounts from his paycheck. The problem with that argument is that you, not your employer, are responsible for ensuring child support is paid correctly. Your order probably even says this. You do not get to enjoy the benefits of your employer’s mistakes at the expense of your children.
In fairness to Fox News Houston, Snopes also got this story wrong. The Houston Court of Appeals did overturn one violation where the trial court found the father guilty of paying too much child support.2 Unfortunately for the father, the appeals court was able to overturn only this part of the order and leave the remaining violations and the father’s sentence intact.
Yes, You Can be Jailed for Visiting Your Children Too Much.
Visiting your child too much is probably a violation of your order. It is another way of saying you have your child when the other parent has the right of possession. A court ordered parenting plan is written to give children fair access to both parents. Either parent deciding that he should have more time with the children without the other’s permission is deciding that the Court was wrong. Judge’s don’t like that. They also don’t like it if you disrespect the Court by disobeying the Court’s order. If one parent can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the other is visiting his children against orders without permission, a Judge can and often will put him in jail.
How Stories Like this Hurt You.
In my previous post, “When Cultures Clash”, I explain a little bit about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in the context of mixed-culture divorce and remarriage. Briefly, our cultures largely define our belief systems. When someone acts outside of our belief system we often see that as bad. Once we define a person as bad, we start to discount everything positive we hear about them and emphasize the negative. Because of this confirmation bias feedback loop, the bad person keeps looking worse and worse in our minds until he becomes the worst thing since Prince Humperdinck.
There is already a perception that fathers do not get a fair shake in courts overall. The thing to remember is that no matter how true this might be, it says absolutely nothing about your individual case. At least in Texas, the law is that mothers and fathers are treated equally. There is a standard parenting plan. There are guidelines for child support. There is a presumption against spousal support. Texas’ public policy is to maximize the time children spend with both parents, and judges generally follow the law.
If you go to court believing stories like this, and believing you are not going to get a fair hearing, you won’t–at least not in your mind. You will already be emotional because of whatever brought you into court. Because of confirmation bias, every ruling against you is going to feel unfair. The Judge will see your attitude and probably won’t like it. The judge’s attitude might show through, further feeding into your confirmation bias. A bad attitude feedback loop can adversely affect how the Court rules for you, but it probably won’t! Once you ratchet up that attitude, though, it is going to be harder to follow the final orders.
What Should I do?
Always go into Court in professional attire with a professional attitude. Maintain that professional attitude no matter what. Pre-trial, you are auditioning for the trial court. In trial, you are auditioning for the appeals court. Expect the Judge to be fair. A judge can be fair but wrong. Sometimes the judge is wrong because of a mistake that can be appealed, but most of the time it is because your evidence did not support the “correct” ruling. However, because of cognitive dissonance, the losing parent often rationalizes the judge’s decision by believing he is corrupt or has a bias against one sex. This is usually counter-productive.
If you are ordered to appear for an enforcement, get an attorney. The judge should give you the option to reset so you can find one at the first hearing but don’t count on it. Get an attorney even if you think you can work out an agreement with the other side. Once you are in front of a judge and facing large fines and a jail sentence, the other side has a huge amount of leverage to get a very unfavorable settlement from you.
1See Act of May 23,2007, 80th Leg., R.S., ch. 1189, § 1, 2007 Tex. Gen. Laws 4054, 4054, repealed by Act of May 22, 2013, 83d Leg., R.S., ch. 649, § 2, 2013 Tex. Sess. Law Serv. 1735, 1735 (West) (effective date June 14, 2013)