The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
The tax refund I was expecting from the IRS was taken to pay for back child support I owe. How does the IRS get involved in collecting child support? If the child is now over 18, how can they continue to collect?
Unpaid child support turns into a federal debt whenever a state agency helps the custodial parent collect unpaid support. Once it’s a federal debt, the various branches of the federal government can intercept what Uncle Sam owes you to collect what you owe Uncle Sam.
Federal law requires states to get involved in child support enforcement, so that kids are supported by their parents, and not the state. Originally, states just helped collect support for parents receiving public assistance. Now, to try to keep families off public assistance, states must help anyone who wants help collecting child support.
In Illinois, the Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) helps collect child support. It’s part of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
When someone uses DCSS to help collect child support that they’re owed, they sign their right to that support over to the state agency. DCSS then steps into the parent’s shoes, so that the support originally owed to the parent is now owed to the state.
When someone owes more than $500 in unpaid child support, the state agency can tell the IRS to intercept any tax refund that’s owed to the delinquent parent.
The IRS is supposed to notify you ahead of time about any tax intercept, and refer you to the agency that’s collecting the support. That gives you a chance to try to stop the intercept, or get your money back. Probably the only way to stop an intercept, though, is by proving you’re current on your support, or not as behind as they say.
This same collection procedure applies to debts owed directly to the federal government, like for Social Security overpayments or student loans. That makes IRS a collector of much more than just taxes.
Your obligation to pay child support stops when you’ve paid all the support you were supposed to pay—not when a child turns 18. So you can be required to keep paying support long after your child’s an adult, and the IRS can continue to intercept your tax refunds. Federal law was tweaked in 2007 to make that clear.
If you’ve remarried, tax intercepts to collect your unpaid child support may take a tax refund that’s at least partially the result of your new spouse’s overpayment of taxes. The IRS calls this an “injured spouse” problem, which can be corrected by filing Form 8379.
That can be done when you file your taxes, before any intercept occurs, or afterwards, to recover the injured spouse’s share.
Tax intercepts can only occur when you’ve overpaid your taxes, and are entitled to a refund. You can therefore stop future tax intercepts by not overpaying your taxes. You may be able to do that by reducing your withholding. Of course, getting current on your support will also solve your problem, and do the right thing for your kids.