If a noncustodial parent is either unwilling or unable to pay child support as ordered by the court, there are many potential consequences that can seriously affect a parent's life, such as taking away his or her driver's license or even a jail sentence for contempt under Georgia civil and family law. In most other situations where jail time is a possible consequence, the defendant has a right to an attorney under state and federal due process guarantees.

But, according to a recent decision of the United States Supreme Court, civil defendants facing jail for their failure to pay child support have no automatic right to counsel. However, states must create and implement procedural safeguards in order to determine whether the parent is able to comply with the child support order, and handle the case accordingly.

The Supreme Court case originated with a father who was sentenced to one year in prison for his failure to pay child support. At the time of sentencing, the father told the trial judge that he was unable to pay due to his previous battle with addiction and a disability that prevented him from working. Without making an express finding regarding the father's ability to make his child support payments, the judge sentenced him to jail.

The father appealed, arguing that he had a right to an attorney at his contempt hearing. The case made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the justices found that the father had not received sufficient due process in his case because the judge had not considered his ability to pay.

However, the court concluded, there is no general, automatic right to an attorney in child support contempt hearings.

Source: ABA Journal, "Supreme Court Finds No Automatic Right to Counsel in Child Support Contempt Proceedings," Debra Cassens Weiss, 20 June 2011