I'm the father of an 11-year-old boy. I've had custody since he was ~1 1/2. His mom does not have her life together and probably never will. I was a single father at the time but have since remarried. His mother has been paying support (albeit about 30% of the court recommended amount) since then, but has been unemployed for over a year now, and her unemployment has now ran out. She's asking me to cancel the support order and forgive arrears for the past 2 months so she doesn't go to jail.

My initial reaction is that it's her problem, not mine. She is a constant source of stress in our lives, and the life of my wife of the past 4 years: frequently being selfish and causing all sorts of problems. I would not consider her a good influence in his life at all, but she is his mother. I can live without the money; it wasn't that much anyhow, but every bit counts.

I feel like this would be awful for my son though, and I can only imagine that she'll make it clear to him that she got in trouble not because of any fault of her own, but because I refused to cancel the court order.

What are my options here? Should I insist she give up legal rights if I cancel it, so I can at least have a silver lining of not being legally required to deal with her more problematic outbursts? Should I just leave support in place and let her deal with her own mess?

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    You are not a charity yet you do not want to be unduly nasty. IMHO, when someone asks you for something you have the right to ask for something in exchange or in return. I do not know what legal rights you are talking about, but asking for something in return for your foregoing a non-trivial amount of money seems reasonable. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 17:11
  • Your situation sounds difficult, and I sympathize. I'm not sure, however, that this is a question for this site - it's really a matter of your opinion; what value do you place on your relationship with your ex, primarily. That's not really something we're equipped for here.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 18:29
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    Do you want your child's mother to go to jail when you have the power to stop it ?, I'm not saying she isn't a constant problem or she doesn't deserve it but any decision you make you will have to explain to your child one day and would you be comfortable explaining that ? Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 13:33
  • @Joe - this reflects on the child's relationship with their mother; I think it's OK to ask here. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 18:16
  • @anongoodnurse it could be more directly focused on that though (e.g. what are possible consequences of the various available choices and what impact does it have on the child)
    – Acire
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 20:39

6 Answers 6


How you handle it is entirely up to you. If you choose to bail her out, I believe it is reasonable to ask for something in return. What that something is is up to you (I also advise that you have some sort of documentation of any agreement you make that will hold up in court, but I digress).

If you don't cancel the order, you aren't doing anything wrong. You are trying, at least in some measure, to have your ex be somewhat responsible for your son. You are right that it is her problem if she can't live up to those obligations. I understand that you are fearful that she will blame you for her inability to be a good mom because she had to go to jail. However, and I am assuming a bit here and could be wrong, but I get the feeling that your ex isn't the kind of person who will take responsibility for her actions and will blame others for her misfortunes. She could just as easily put a spin on anything, whether that's the court order or something else. You have to weigh the consequences of her telling your son this versus your ability to tell your son your side of it.

Also, realize that by cancelling the order, you may be enabling a problem. If she expects you to bail her out of this, what will happen the next time she needs help? And if you don't help her, does that make you responsible for her getting in trouble?

Finally, I would make sure to raise your son so that he knows that he is responsible for his actions and the consequences of them. If he learns early on that he can't blame everyone else for his problems (and that others can't do the same), you can head off any spin-doctoring your ex could try. And as a bonus, you hopefully end up with a son who is responsible and thinks before he acts.

  • If the tables were turned, and it was you who were having a problem, is this really the same answer you'd give to someone wondering about sending you to jail? To me, that's just so harsh. You know none of the circumstances in this horrible situation. Does she have a mental illness? A drug addiction? What if her son loves her dearly? What will he learn about compassion vs. consequences, of mercy over legalities, of his value to his father over consequences of an unemployed mother being sent to jail? These are serious questions. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 18:46
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    @anongoodnurse If it were me being threatened with going to jail, would I want mercy? Sure. I was a kid once too and I tried to "throw myself on the mercies of the court" more than once with my parents. Most of the time it didn't work. And because of that, I have a good appreciation that actions have consequences. If they had given into me every time, I don't think I would have learned that. I would have learned that I can get out of anything unpleasant with enough begging, pleading and bargaining. Is mercy important? Absolutely. But so is justice. (cont.)
    – Becuzz
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 19:17
  • @anongoodnurse (cont.) Mercy can't always beat out justice. Nor should justice always trump mercy. It's a delicate balance, where the consequences of both actions need to be weighed. Could having the mother go to jail hurt the son's feelings? Definite possibility. Could it also be the wake up call that gets the mom to straighten out her life and be a better parent? Maybe. It is a difficult decision where only the OP has enough context to properly weigh the consequences.
    – Becuzz
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 19:17
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    Your parents didn't incarcerate you. This sounds like an excuse to justify being rigid. Sending someone who lost a job to jail for a paltry sum of money is no better than the Dickensian horror of "poorhouses". That's the real issue here, not that your parents taught you consequences. All my kids are responsible adults. If they lost a job and fell behind on child payments, I would help them out, and help them get vocational help, not "let them learn from their mistakes" or give them "a wake up call", especially in this job market. Wisdom in this instance is not incarceration. Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 21:56
  • I think there can be a middle ground between the two extremes of imprisoning and forgiving everything.
    – Acire
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 0:59

Your son is 11, and really shouldn't be privy to the monetary specifics of your relationship with his mother. However, "Should" often doesn't translate to reality. So you need to be prepared, if you take this step of denying her and in effect sending her to jail (let's call a spade a spade; your son may well see it this way), or of cutting her out of your son's life, to explain to him exactly why you did this, in spite of not needing the money. After all, sending her to jail will not make the money flow, so if she paints it as being for the money, she's correct in that respect.

My initial reaction is that it's her problem, not mine. She is a constant source of stress in our lives, and the life of my wife of the past 4 years... I feel like this would be awful for my son though...

That says it all. It should (there's that word again) be only about what's best for your son, not what's best for you and your wife. You seem to think your son would be resentful. Why is that? You have to answer that yourself.

What are my options here?

Your options are many. You can do either of the things you propose (and answer to your son in the months and years to come.)

You can also recognize that she has paid you - even out of her unemployment (!) - when she could, and cut her a break (ask her to make up for it when she gets a job?)

Or, you can just be a magnanimous dad and forgive her her debt, as you would (I presume) wish to be forgiven if the tables were turned. If that's not the case, and you really would prefer to go to jail and be cut off from your son because that's best all around, then by all means, do take those drastic steps.

The bottom line in my opinion is that any action you take should, really should!, be about what's best for your son. If she is detrimental to him, take her to court, prove why he would be better off without her, and let an impartial party - who will take your son's feelings, opinions, and well-being into consideration - decide if you're correct. But please don't use this unfortunate turn of events as an excuse to get her out of your life.

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    I was in a very similar situation as this one. And I ended up letting them forego paying for 6 months, and catch up by increasing the payments monthly after that, until the sum was payed. What went through my mind the most when I heard that they had trouble paying for the child support was will I need to start packing him lunches when he goes there? Do they have running water?. It's weird to consider the angle of getting them out of my life. I was wondering if it was safer to get him out of theirs.
    – Reaces
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 14:27

Your child has a human right to a family life with his mother. Her financial debts to you are irrelevant to that right. She has a human right to a family life with her child, and again her debts to you are irrelevant to that right. These rights can be interfered with, but only in extreme situations. Is the child at risk of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from her or her partners? And note that even in that situation there are methods used to enable visits - for example supervised visits.

So whether she sees him or not has to be kept separate from any money that she owes you.

You describe her as causing trouble for you and your wife - that's not a reason to interfere with your son's human right to a family life. However it is a good reason to change the way contact happens. You may want to put in place strict arrangements about the disruption she causes. Some examples might include asking her to only ever email to arrange contact arrangements; or you may want to arrange pick ups and drop offs at a children's contact center where you drop the child off to a trusted 3rd party, and leave, and then she collects him, so you and she never meet. There might be a cost involved in that - either she could pay it, or you could pay it because it makes your life easier. This protects his right to a family life, while keeping her problematic behaviour away from you.

But really you're better off speaking to a lawyer about the financial stuff.

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    +1 The rights of the child should override any financial issues related to that child. Arguably there shouldn't even be financial issues that might put 'mom' at risk of incarceration; for example if child support payments linked to the ability to pay then none of this would never have become an issue. Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 9:17
  • @JamesSnell yes, I am completely baffled this is even an issue. How is this mother supposed to pay child support without any income? What alternative is there for her except begging to have it forgiven if she faces either that or jail? In my country, that couldn't happen...
    – YviDe
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 10:26

From a legal standpoint, if you think she would sign over rights in exchange for cancelling the child support, I would do it. This doesn't have to limit her ability to see the child, but it does give you legal protection if she decides she wants to go for custody later on (personal experience - my stepbrother's mom did just that, in hopes of getting my dad to pay her child support. Luckily, she failed).

As far as how this affects your child, I don't think one is worse than the other. My (birth) dad took off when I was young, and eventually my mom did the same thing you're considering, offering to drop the arrears and cancel support moving forward if he signed over rights and let her new husband adopt me. Did it hurt that he signed me over in exchange for money? Yes. But it also hurt that he wasn't paying the money all along. I would just explain it simply to your child. In my opinion, 11 is old enough to understand who is caring for him, and kids are good at continuing to love their parents even while understanding that they are not reliable.

  • "From a legal standpoint, if you think she would sign over rights in exchange for cancelling the child support, I would do it". This looks like dangerous (and off-topic) legal advice - doing so might even be considered coercion, which is a serious offense. Plus it would likely not be enforceable - custody is not something you can sell or bargain away, nor should you.
    – sleske
    Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 10:52

You know - I'd be a hell of a lot happier if my ex were out of my life too. But she's only in my life BECAUSE we made a couple of awesome kids together. And the kids are already old enough to know that mom can be unreasonable, that mom has her faults, and where mom falls down in the parenting department. They also know all that stuff about me too because I'm not perfect either. And you know what - they love their mom, warts and all, and without reservation.

So no way in hell I'd have her sent to jail over payments she can't make. And no way I'd ever use that as an excuse to nail her on custody. I'm an adult - I can suck it up. My kids, on the other hand, shouldn't have to pay any avoidable price for her mistakes. "Sorry - you can't see your mom unless she pays me?" Really?

I want my kids to grow up loving and compassionate, and yeah - they learn by example. So I suck it up, and I treat her with as much kindness as I can, even if that isn't always reciprocated. And you know what? My kids notice that. Once my eldest (16 at the time) came into my room after she had tore into me over nothing and asked "is she for real?". Would have been the easiest thing ever to say what I really thought, but I bit my tongue and just said "let it go bud, its not anything for you to worry about - she loves you, I love, and she's just angry right now." I'm pretty sure they've seen me fail at being kind a few times too.

And as for your wife, protect her as much as you can (assuming she wasn't part of the reason for your breakup from your ex) but at the end of the day she knew you had an ex that was going to be in your lives. That was part of the package of marrying a parent. On the bright side - once the kids are adults you can get out of each others lives most of the time.

So your options are simple: Choose what sort of example you want to be to your kids and what you want them to think about YOU - and decide how to go forward with that.


I don't think the other answers recognize the legalities of your question and it really should be asked on the Legal SE but I can answer you here.

Child support is not yours. It is your child's. Your child is not 18 so cannot legally bind a contract. Therefore the courts are the guardian of the child and look after his rights.

No court that I know of would ever allow child support to be wiped clean - without the mother relinquishing all rights to the child (your wife adopting). This is a HUGE stretch and has only happened a handful of times. So if you went to court and told the judge that you won't make your ex pay child support because of XYZ then the judge would not be looking out for the interest of the child (their sole job in family court) by taking your offer.

The judge may make the amount less significant. But I have never seen a judge allow total dismissal of support.

As far as sending mom to jail. Very very rarely will that happen, especially with the mom. If it does it is usually a very unsubstantial amount of time (a couple days). The judge wants the mom making money and paying support and seeing child, not costing tax payers money. If she is behind going to jail for a few days or a month might help her get straight and get some semblance of a life back together.

In your case I would just let the legal system try to work. In family courts you will have a great bearing on what the judge does. In that you can ask for leniency of the unpaid support or ask for certain provisions. But in my opinion if she is as volatile as you say and has this long of a history, it is better to be dealt with than for this to continue around your son.

(Also I don't know your ex. Going off your question I would not even think about her giving up legal rights. This could indeed be a circus and she might change her mind 10 times and you might spend 50k on a lawyer.)

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