Passport pay-ups

August 16, 2007

Abeneficial side effect of new requirements for U.S. passports has been an increase in payments from child-support deadbeats. Instead of being able to take routine trips to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, parents who have avoided their financial obligations to their children are rightly being forced to stay put - and pay up.

The government collected about $24 billion in child support last year, mostly by withholding wages. That often takes time to put in place and, in many cases, child-support enforcement agencies have to help nonpaying parents - mostly fathers - secure employment to meet their obligations. But if a child-support delinquent wants to leave the country for business or pleasure, the Passport Denial Program, which was started in 1998, often offers quick exposure and enforcement. The passport application process can be restarted once back payments have been made.

New passport requirements for visitors to neighboring places such as Canada and Mexico, as well as a reduction in the program's threshold for unpaid child support from $5,000 to $2,500, have resulted in more than $22 million in back payments being collected nationally through the program this year, about the same amount collected during all of 2006.

Maryland's Child Support Enforcement Administration, which is part of the Department of Human Resources, has had a similar experience with the program, securing more than $360,000 from January to June this year, compared with more than $250,000 in 2006. Overall, Maryland distributed nearly $483 million in child-support payments last year, about 71 percent from withholding wages. The agency also collects overdue child support from federal and state income taxes, lottery winnings and bank accounts.

Although the Passport Denial Program is one of the smaller tools in the child-support enforcement arsenal, it's an effective way to get lump-sum payments because of the 10-year renewal cycle. This year, enforcers have secured payments of more than $36,000 and $26,000 from at least two Marylanders who wanted to travel abroad. State child-support enforcement officials acknowledge that they have tried to be flexible as long as a deadbeat parent brought his arrears within the $2,500 limit. But, as more people will undoubtedly be affected by the passport program, officials have sensibly concluded that, with only a once-in-a-decade chance to collect, zero tolerance is the best policy.

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