What is Retroactive Child Support in Tennessee?

Retroactive Child Support

Dealing with past-due child support in Tennessee?

Raising a child is costly today, and Tennessee law requires that both parents contribute financially to their child’s upbringing—even if the parents are unmarried. Children are entitled to financial support from both parents until they either turn 18 or graduate from high school, whichever happens second.

When one parent is not contributing what they rightfully should, however, it puts an undue financial strain on the other parent. In many cases, it also negatively impacts the lifestyle the child is entitled to have.

That’s why Tennessee law allows retroactive child support to be ordered to make up for financial support that the custodial parent did not receive in the past. But what does retroactive support involve, and what can you expect from a back child support order in Tennessee?

Family law matters are inherently complex. Each family has unique situations and varying financial resources that affect child custody and child support orders. A Chattanooga family law attorney can help you navigate the complicated legal process and ensure the best possible outcome for your child support case.

Tennessee Child Support Guidelines: Retroactive Child Support

In many child custody cases in Tennessee, one parent has sole physical custody. The other parent—the “non-custodial” parent—spends less parenting time with their child and, therefore, incurs less financial burden for childcare costs.

That’s why the non-custodial parent is obligated by Tennessee law to pay support to the custodial parent and contribute to their child’s expenses.

When child support is not paid—even though each parent is obligated—the non-custodial parent may be on the hook for what is called “arrears” payments. Arrears are support payments that should have been paid by the non-custodial parent in the past but were not.  

In these situations, Tennessee family courts will add retroactive child support payments to the support order so that the child support debt can be paid off over time.

When Does a Tennessee Child Support Obligation Begin?

A request for back child support payment often leads to a pressing question: When does a parent’s financial responsibility toward their child begin?

Tennessee family law says that child support obligations begin on the date that one of the following events took place:

  • The child was born
  • The parents separated or filed for divorce
  • The non-custodial parent abandoned the child
  • The custodial party (whether it’s the child’s parent, family member, or another custodial adult) gained sole custody of the child

This means that retroactive child support payments added to the support order could be calculated based on going back to the date of one of these events.

How Far Back Can Retroactive Child Support Go?

There is a limit on the timeframe for which a custodial parent can request retroactive support. Once the child support order is filed with the family court, the custodial parent can only be awarded back child support for up to five years before the date of filing.

However, the court may make exceptions to this rule and award less or more than five years of child support arrears to be paid. This will depend on special circumstances and the family court judge’s determination of what would be in the interest of justice in the particular case.

Statutes of Limitations Related to Child Support in Tennessee

There is no statute of limitations when it comes to enforcing child support payments that are past due in the Volunteer State. There is, however, a time limit set on filing for the establishment of paternity. Once a child reaches 21, a paternity test will no longer require the non-custodial parent to pay current or retroactive child support payments.

Establishing paternity as soon as possible—preferably right away when the child is born—is important to enforce child support obligations and facilitate a practical child support order.

How Much Back Child Support is a Felony in Tennessee?

Non-custodial parents who fail to pay ordered child support can face civil and criminal charges in Tennessee court. Failure to pay child support can result in contempt of court, misdemeanor charges, or even felony charges in some cases.


“Non-support” occurs when the non-custodial parent fails to pay child support payments as ordered. 

A judge could consider this contempt of court or a Class A misdemeanor, which could result in the following:

  • A $50 fine
  • Up to ten days in jail

In some cases, if the non-custodial parent is aware of the support order and has the means to make child support payments, a judge may order them to be imprisoned until they comply with the order.

Flagrant Non-support

When a non-custodial parent continually fails to pay the ordered child support payments, it could be considered “flagrant non-support,” a Class E felony charge. Flagrant non-support occurs when the parent hasn’t paid child support for six months or owes over $1,000 in retroactive child support to the custodial parent.

Seek Legal Aid From an Experienced Chattanooga Child Support Lawyer

Child support orders and enforcement can get messy. Bitterness and emotionally charged relationships often exist between co-parents, and people often find themselves in a stressful legal battle over child support payments.

If you’re in a situation where retroactive child support is owed, you need legal representation from a Chattanooga child support attorney. The Law Office of Sam Byrd will ensure you’re treated fairly in court and get a favorable outcome for your family court case. Contact us today for a consultation.

Author Bio

Sam Byrd is the owner and managing attorney at The Law Office of Sam Byrd. With hands-on experience in divorce, family law, criminal law, and DUI/DWI cases, Sam has been serving clients in Tennessee since 2012. He graduated with a J.D. from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 2012 and holds a B.S. in Legal Studies from the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2009.

He began his legal career as a paralegal, working under his father’s guidance. Prior to that, Sam served in the United States Marine Corps as a member of the 2/7 Weapons Company stationed at 29 Palms, California.

Sam has received several accolades for his work, including being recognized as a Rising Star in Divorce & Family Law by Tennessee SuperLawyers in 2020, 2019, and 2018. He is also a member of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 under 40, an exclusive professional organization for top trial lawyers under the age of 40. Sam’s commitment to continuous learning and improvement is demonstrated by his certifications in Trial Skills from the National College of DUI Defense in 2019 and 2018.

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