In Georgia, failure to pay court ordered child support comes with a variety of penalties. Such penalties generally include: contempt citations, suspension of driver’s, hunting and fishing licenses, denial of passport applications, and potentially incarceration. If these penalties seem severe, it is because they were designed in an effort to dissuade non-payment of child support. However, the above mentioned penalties pale in comparison to what may be considered the ultimate penalty for failure to pay court ordered child support: termination of parental rights.
Georgia statutory law states the following with respect to the termination of non-custodial parents’ parental rights for non-payment of child support:
(b) Except as provided in subsections (e) through (h) of Code Section 15-11-96, the court by order may terminate the parental rights of a parent with respect to the parent’s child if: […] (2) A decree has been entered by a court of competent jurisdiction of this or any other state ordering the parent, guardian, or other custodian to support the child, and the parent, guardian, or other custodian has wantonly and willfully failed to comply with the order for a period of 12 months or longer.
O.C.G.A. § 15-11-94(b)(2).
The two most notable elements of this law are: 1) the non-payment must be “wanton and willful,” and 2) the non-payment must be in contravention of a court order to pay child support. According to the Georgia Court of Appeals, “wanton and willful” is defined as “without reasonable excuse, with a conscious disregard for duty, willingly, voluntarily, and intentionally.” In re H.B. and K.B., 174 Ga. App. 435 (1985). Thus, for example, if a parent’s non-payment is due to being laid off from his or her employment, such non-payment is not “wanton and willful.” In re S.G.T., 175 Ga. App. 475 (1985). With regard to the second element, a non-custodial parent’s parental rights may not be terminated due to failure to pay child support if no court order was ever issued obligating that parent to pay child support. Uniroyal Goodrich Tire, Co. et al. v. Adams et al., 221 Ga. App. 705 (1996).
With the above in mind, termination of parental rights is often only sought in the most severe cases of abandonment and non-support.