Local father can't get stimulus money because of back child support

Posted at 5:00 PM, Apr 16, 2020

JOELTON, Tenn. (WTVF) — While millions of Americans should start seeing their COVID-19 relief check in their bank accounts this week, potentially millions of others may not able to see the money.

Parents who are behind on their child support payment can have their checks deducted or used completely depending on how much is owed. The CARES Act may have suspended back taxes or student loan debt, which would normally require garnishment of tax refunds, but back child support isn't included. It's specifically mentioned as subject to collect from the Treasury Offset Program (TOP), a department that collects federal and state debt.

"I need help too," Joelton father Jeffrey Coker told NewsChannel 5. "I don't think it's fair that I'm not getting a stimulus check because I owe back child support."

Coker, 35, admitted he's fallen short by the thousands in his 14 years of child support payments, and was looking forward to the $1,200 stimulus check. He's considered an essential worker but with reduced hours, Coker is worried about his livelihood.

"It's very hard because I live week to week trying to pay bills. It's a struggle to keep food on the table and to make sure I don't get behind on other bills as well," he said. "I know there's probably tons of others just like me in this same situation."

There were nearly 220,000 of child support cases in Tennessee in 2019. There were more than 216,000 child support debts with TOP, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Stimulus money can also be withheld for some spouses who file joint tax returns even if the significant other owes child support money from a different relationship.

Garnishments have been in question amid the stimulus conversation. Since the stimulus bills had no specific restrictions, banks or debt collectors can divert check to pay for money owed, including outstanding overdrafts or other fees and delinquent loans.

This week 25 attorneys general asked the Treasury Department to step in since it has the authority to make rules on payment. Tennessee wasn't one of them.

The Tennessee Department of Human Services, which oversees the Child Support Enforcement Services, said it doesn't take an official position on stimulus money being offset by the US Treasury to collect back child support.

Officials with the department said they'll "follow their [US Treasury] guidance on this process and make sure any offset money is provided to the appropriate families to help meet the financial needs of children."