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California Family Law: Interstate Enforcement of Child Support




One particular provision of the Personal Responsibility and Job Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, also known as the Welfare Reform Bill, required that all states enact the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) by January 1, 1998, without change from the Uniform version, or else lose federal funding for child support services. UIFSA is now the law in all states, and understanding its provisions will make enforcement of child support across state lines much simpler than in times past.


Why UIFSA Was Necessary


Before the enactment of UIFSA, interstate child support enforcement and modification was governed by the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA). URESA was first drafted and approved by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1950. URESA provided the first mechanism by which support orders could be established and enforced across state lines. Pursuant to URESA, a person who needed child support could establish paternity, establish a support duty, enforce an existing support order for both unpaid and prospective support, seek a new order in a higher amount, and register a foreign support order in a second state.


In the years since its adoption, however, URESA proved incredibly troublesome. The foremost problem with URESA was that when a parent obtained a modification of child support in another state, both the original order and the new order were valid orders. The result was that a parent could be paying child support under a modified order, while still owing child support under the original order. This flaw in URESA caused thousands of parents to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.


The drafters of URESA became convinced that URESA had to be scrapped and a new law concerning interstate enforcement of support substituted. The result is UIFSA, which now governs all interstate proceedings concerning child support. This includes paternity establishment, the establishment or an original child support order, the modification of a child support order, and the termination of a child support order.


How UIFSA Enforcement Works


As noted above, UIFSA governs all interstate child support matters. The touchstone of UIFSA is "one order/one time/one place." This means at any one time, no matter where the parties or children move after the entry of a support order and no matter how many times the circumstances of the parties change and the order is modified in court, there can exist only one order that must be obeyed. This is what makes UIFSA different, and better, than URESA.


Although UIFSA's touchstone is "one order/one time/one place," enforcement of the court's order is available in every state where the person who has an obligation to pay child support derives income, or owns property or assets, or where the person who has an obligation to pay child support is subject to personal jurisdiction, that is, where the person who has an obligation to pay child support has contacts with the state. Further, the last state that entered an order for support retains continuing jurisdiction to enforce its own order.


To maximize enforcement, UIFSA provides two basic enforcement options: registration and direct wage withholding. First, "registration" means that the parent seeking enforcement of a child support order must obtain a certified copy of the child support order and "register" the order in a new state, that is, the state where the parent who owes support resides. There are standardized forms for registration, and it is no more difficult than filling out some papers and taking them to the clerk of the court. Once the order is registered, it can then be enforced in the new state, and the registered child support order must be given the same effect as an order issued in the enforcing state. Second, "direct wage withholding" means that the parent seeking enforcement of a child support order may send a standardized form to the employer of the parent who owes support, and the employer must then take money out from that parent's pay and send it to the child support enforcement agency. Direct wage withholding saves on the trips to court.


Defenses to Enforcement


A parent who owes support can assert only six limited defenses to registration of an out-of-state support order under UIFSA: (1) the issuing tribunal (court or administrative agency) lacked personal jurisdiction over the contesting party or lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the matter, that is, the tribunal lacked the authority to hear the case; (2) the order was obtained by fraud; (3) the order was vacated, suspended, or modified by a later order; (4) the issuing tribunal (court or administrative agency) stayed the order pending appeal; (5) there is a defense in the registering state to the remedy sought; (6) full or partial payment has been made; or (7) the statute of limitations (time limits imposed by law) precludes enforcement of some or all of the arrears (unpaid support) due. It is also a valid defense that the state where the order is being registered and enforced does not have jurisdiction over the parent who owes support. There can be no other defenses to registration. Thus, defenses to enforcement such as denial of due process, lack of paternity, and interference with custody and visitation cannot be raised. Time is also of the essence, as defenses to registration must be raised within a specified period.


The doctrine of res judicata may constitute a valid defense to a UIFSA enforcement action. "Res judicata" means that the same matter has already been decided by another court and that other court's order must be followed. For example, an Arkansas court found that the doctrine of res judicata barred a California mother from recovering interest on the father's support arrearage (debt) after the entire judgment was paid in full in California. In that case, California initiated a UIFSA action in 1991, seeking to collect arrears accumulated under a California child support order. The petition stated the amount of the accrued arrears, but did not mention interest. A judgment was entered and the father paid the full amount due. Later, the State of California issued an interstate wage-attachment order to collect more than $7,000 in interest. The Arkansas Court of Appeals found that the doctrine of res judicata precluded California from collecting interest after the judgment had been fully paid according to California's own judgment.




With the increasing mobility of the American family, it is increasingly important that all parents be aware of his or her options concerning the enforcement of child support orders across state lines. An experienced family law attorney may utilize UIFSA to enforce a child support order across state lines without resorting to criminal enforcement mechanisms.