Passport Nightmares Created By Support Arrearages
Removing Impediments can be an Impediment
By: Sarinia M. Feinman, Esquire
King of Prussia, PA and the Philadelphia Main Line
Ordinarily, the process to obtain or renew a passport is relatively simple. Once an applicant goes into their local passport office, it takes about five or six weeks to process. The applicant may expedite the process, though, and receive the passport in two weeks, if he or she desires. Unfortunately, an applicant may hit a roadblock during this process, through no fault of his or her own. To the applicant’s surprise, an impediment upon their name may prevent the issuance of a passport, and the process to reverse such a situation will prove to be quite arduous. As the applicant’s attorney, this could become your problem, as well!
Section 51.70 (a)(8) of Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations states that a passport shall not be issued, except for direct return to the United States, in any case in which the applicant has been certified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) as transmitted from a State Agency to be in arrears of child support in an amount exceeding $5,000. Therefore, in the event that an individual is in arrears in his or her child support payments, greater than $5,000, the United States Department of State will deny the issuance of a passport until such time as the account is settled to that State’s satisfaction, and this decision is not appealable with the Department of State. Several States have a $0 balance policy before allowing passport issuance to an individual who was previously in arrearage, while others merely require that the arrears be below $5,000, and The Department of State cannot override the State policy. In fact, when an Order is entered retroactively, an automatic arrearage may accrue immediately on an individual’s account. Thus, an individual who is diligent and responsible in making his or her child support payments may be rendered ineligible to obtain a passport as a result of an arrearage greater than $5,000, which was incurred overnight, literally.
At the time of determination of ineligibility, applicants are instructed to contact their State child support enforcement agencies in order to make payment arrangements. Pennsylvania’s Child Support Enforcement Agency is located at P.O. Box 8018, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 17105, and may also be contacted at 1-(800)-932-0211. If appropriate arrangements are made within ninety (90) days, the National Passport Information Center shall be notified in writing or by calling, but 5-10 business days should be allowed to pass before contacting the Center, as HHS needs adequate time to process the payment and removal of the impediment. Once the Secretary of HHS has certified to the Secretary of State that the arrearage has been satisfied, the applicant’s name shall be removed from the certified list, and a passport issued.
Although this process appears to be straightforward, attorneys may encounter several obstacles, while attempting to have a restriction or impediment removed from a client’s name. In the event that such an impediment exists upon a client’s name, the attorney must first contact the local Domestic Relations Office (DRO), in their appropriate county. Once the opposing party, or their counsel, sends a letter to the representative in the DRO, stating that they do not wish to impede the applicant from obtaining a passport, the representative may process such request, so that the restriction may be removed from the applicant’s name. However, this will only be reflected at the State level, and upon inquiry with the United States Department of HHS, a restriction will remain upon the applicant’s name. Next, the attorney must contact the United States Child Support Enforcement Office within the US Department of HHS in order to make sure that the impediment is reflected at the federal level, as well. This office is located at 200 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20201, and may be contacted at 1-(877)-696-6775. Due to the Privacy Act, an attorney must remember to have their client call ahead and approve the agency to speak with the attorney when he or she calls, or else the attorney will be limited in the information he or she is able to receive.
Now, the attorney is finally ready to contact the National Passport Agency (877-487-2778) to inform them that the impediment has been removed and that the passport is ready for process. Information about The National Passport Agency may also be retrieved at www.travel.state.gov. At this time, though, it is often common for the restriction to continue to appear. In the event that this occurs, the attorney must request that the passport agent perform a “special name search,” which shall reveal that the restriction has since been removed. This search only takes twenty-four hours, at which time the National Passport Agency shall notify the passport office that is processing the applicant’s request that the restriction has been removed. Once the impediment has been removed, the passport may be printed, and after the “quality control” stage, sent out to the applicant. The passport is ordinarily sent via first class mail, but for an additional fee the applicant may have the passport sent via overnight express delivery.
Basically, in order to obtain or renew a passport for a client who has an impediment upon his or her name, the attorney must start at their local level and work their way up to the State level, and finally the federal level, in order to insure that the restriction is removed. If the attorney or client attempts to renew the passport, believing they only need two weeks to do so, they better be ready to do all of this legwork in order to speed up this tedious process, which could take much longer if there is no follow up by the attorney. In order to avoid having to deal with this process, during their initial intake interviews, perhaps attorneys should ask all new clients if they have a valid passport with many years remaining. If not, the attorney should recommend that the client renew or obtain a passport before entering the Child Support Database – PA SCDU – because once a client is exposed, there is no telling what arrears could build up overnight, and what problems may arise for both the attorney and client.
Sarinia M. Feinman, Esquire is a partner at Vetrano|Vetrano & Feinman LLC, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, limiting her practice to family law.