Licence Suspension and Denial: Overview of a New Mechanism for Child Support Enforcement

3.3 Trigger Points: What Arrearage Is Necessary before Payors are Targeted?

The large majority of statutes have criteria that must be met before any suspension action is taken, usually the number of months in arrears. One exception is Florida, where drivers' and occupational licence suspensions can be initiated for any delinquent child support case, regardless of the amount owed or the months in arrears (Florida Department of Revenue, 1995). In the case of occupational licences, however, the legislation states that the child support agency cannot go to court until it has "exhausted all other available remedies." With the delays inherent in the court process, it is probable that determined child support delinquents would be in substantial arrears before licence suspension is initiated.[17] Kansas also did not define a specified amount of arrears before suspension: the decision is up to the court which may, "in addition to any other remedies," order that a notice be served on the licensing body (Kansas Statutes, Section 74-147).

The top panel in Table 2 shows that the threshold for triggering licence suspension procedures ranges from less than one month to 12 months of arrearages, with more than 70 percent of states (N = 37) having established three months or less as the trigger point. One judicial process state mentions "contempt of court" as the trigger, and two other states indicate that less drastic remedies must first have been attempted before licence suspension can be initiated. In the bottom panel, we show that 15 states have legislated dollar amounts in addition to a specified number of months of arrearages. For example, the payor in Indiana must be three months in arrears or owe more than $2,000.

Table 2: The Amount of Arrearage Triggering Licence Suspensions in the United States

Months in arrears Number
1 month or less 5
2 months 11
3 months 21
4 months 3
6 months 7
12 months 1
Contempt of court 1
All other remedies attempted 2
Total number of jurisdictions 51

Amount in arrears Number
$500 2
$1,000 8
$2,000 2
$2,500 2
$5,000 1
Total number of jurisdictions 15

Source: Calculated from United States DHHS, OCSE, 1998, and state legislation.

In Hawaii, different thresholds apply to drivers' and occupational licences. Drivers' and recreational licences can be suspended if the payor is delinquent in an amount equal to or greater than three months of the current amount. Vocational and professional licences, on the other hand, can be suspended only if the payor is delinquent for six months. In Nebraska, professional licences must be suspended before drivers' licences.

No documentation specifies the rationales for targeting the specified number of months or amounts.

3.4 Administrative and Judicial Decision Making and Procedural Safeguards

Under the PRWORA, states have flexibility in implementing licence suspension programs. States have enacted an administrative or judicial process, or a combination of both. The administrative process provides the child support agency with the authority to identify and suspend the licence. The judicial process limits the authorization to suspend a licence to a judge. States that have mixed processes may process welfare and non-welfare cases differently[18] or the CSA may have the discretion of using either administrative or judicial processing. About 43 percent (N = 22) of jurisdictions in the United States have the authority to use administrative procedures, 33 percent (N = 17) are required to use the courts, and the remaining 24 percent (N = 12) have a combination of both processes.[19] Note that if the only involvement of the court is at the Appellate level, we have categorized the state as having an administrative process. "Many states, including Alaska, Georgia, Illinois and Iowa, permit administrative actions on licence suspensions coupled with the opportunity for judicial review" (Myers, 1999).

Maine is an example of a purely administrative process state. The payor is given written notification of the delinquency by personal service and warned that he or she must pay current and past-due support immediately to avoid licence revocation. The payor is given 20 days to respond to the notice and to ask for an administrative hearing. The only issues that can be determined at the hearing are related to compliance, not "the reasonableness of a payment agreement in light of the payor's current circumstances"--although the payor may raise the issue. The payor can appeal the decision of the hearing to the state court, and the court may hear and determine the reasonableness of a payment agreement. If non-compliance is confirmed, the licensing board must notify the payor that the licence is suspended (see Maine Department of Human Services, 1994).

In Oregon, the payor is informed by mail of the licences that can be suspended and is given 30 days to comply by arranging with the CSA to enter into a payment agreement. There are two levels of appeal, an administrative review by a hearings officer and a judicial review. The order for suspension is stayed pending the determination by the hearings officer, but is not stayed pending judicial review.

In Rhode Island, the payor is mailed a notice by the CSA stating that the payor has 30 days to respond, and that the payor may request a family court hearing "to contest the issue of compliance." If no such request is made within 30 days, the CSA then informs the licensing board and the licence is suspended. If the payor requests a court hearing, the CSA may not certify that the licence is to be suspended until the court finds that the payor is not in compliance with the court order of support (Rhode Island Statutes, Title 15, Chapter 15-11.1). The issues that can be addressed in the Family Court hearing are not specified (e.g. whether hardship issues can be raised).

An example of a mixed administrative and judicial process state is Florida. This system requires court involvement for occupational but not for drivers' licence suspensions. With regard to occupational licences, the CSA is authorized to screen all applicants for new, renewed and current licences to ensure compliance with child support obligations. If in delinquency, the agency must give 30 days notice for payment or reaching an agreement; originally notice was sent by certified mail, but this provision was subsequently replaced with regular mail, both to reduce costs and because the payor could simply refuse to sign for certified mail. If there is no response, the CSA may petition the court to deny the application or suspend the licence. No petition can be filed with the court until the CSA has exhausted all other remedies. The court may find that it is inappropriate to suspend the licence when:

  • denial or suspension would result in irreparable harm to the payor or his or her employees or would not accomplish the objective of collecting the delinquency; or
  • the payor demonstrates that he or she has made an effort in good faith to reach an agreement with the CSA.

Furthermore, the court may not suspend an occupational licence if the court determines that the child support agency has an alternative remedy that is likely to accomplish the objective of collecting the delinquency. Reinstatement of the licence or certificate is to be done when the payor has complied with the court order (see Florida Department of Revenue, 1995, for the statute).

A much more complex process is described by Adamson (1996) on the Texas judicial system. There are a large number of steps to be taken by the state, giving the delinquent payor many opportunities to make repayment plans or lump sum payments. Of interest is that the majority of hearings are held via the telephone, thereby reducing time and travel costs.[20] Due process protections are substantial, including the possibility of two levels of appeal. Adamson notes that every effort is made to avoid formal processing.

In New Jersey, the court must suspend or revoke a licence if all appropriate enforcement methods have been exhausted and no equitable reason (e.g. involuntary unemployment or disability) prevents compliance. When the payor is given 30 days' notice that his or her licence will be suspended and the payor does not respond, the Probation Division files a certification with the court. If the court is satisfied that service was effective, it enters a court order suspending or revoking all licences held by the payor. If the payor requests a court hearing, the hearing is to be scheduled within 45 days of the request.

In a judicial process state, such as Connecticut, payors have 30 days to meet specific conditions (a plan to pay) before the suspension is imposed. The judge or family support magistrate cannot suspend the licence unless the non-compliance with child support obligations was willful and without good cause, the suspension order is fair and equitable, and the payor has sufficient financial resources to comply with the conditions in the suspension order.

These examples of judicial processing indicate that delinquent payors may be able to litigate successfully if they can prove "irreparable harm" (Florida), that the failure to pay is not "willful" (Connecticut), and that he or she has made a "good faith" effort to pay (New Jersey). States that use administrative processing rarely look at hardship issues until the Appellate stage.[21] Not all states that have administrative processes permit appeals to state courts (roughly two-thirds do so). In Kentucky, for example, the statute permits appeal to the licensing board and a vdispute hearing" to be held by the CSA, but the only basis for a dispute hearing is a mistake in fact."

A preliminary assessment of the differential effectiveness of the administrative and judicial processes in eight states undertaken in 1996 found that the administrative process:

  • tended to be faster in terms of the time required to suspend the licence;
  • resulted in more licences being suspended;
  • required fewer resources on the part of the child support agency; and
  • resulted in higher collections (U.S. DHHS, OIG, 1997).

These findings are to be expected. Administrative processing by its nature is faster than judicial processing, can involve many more delinquent payors, requires fewer resources, especially if automated, and would result in higher collections if only because of the larger numbers targeted. As discussed in section 3.8 below, the number of licence suspensions may not be the appropriate indicator of success.

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