If you’ve lost your job because of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis, it may feel like the world has ground to a halt. However, there are actions you need to take right now to adjust your child support if you’re not able to afford the payments.
Whether you’re no longer going into an office or donning an apron to wait tables, job loss often constitutes a “material change in circumstance” — the legal threshold for possibly being eligible for a change to your child support obligation. But your child support obligation doesn’t automatically change just because your circumstances have. You have to proactively ask the Court to make a change by filing a formal request to change the amount you’re required to pay.
Before we jump into the actions you need to take to make your request, we’re going to give you a bit of background on why it’s absolutely essential that you take action now rather than wait for Courts to reopen.
Despite some states loosening Stay-At-Home Orders, many Courts remain closed. This means that families in need of relief for child support payments are going to have to wait…for who knows how long. When Stay-At-Home orders started going into effect in mid-March, many Courts set projected reopening dates for late May and early June. There is a massive backlog in cases that have been postponed, and, depending how laws work in your jurisdiction, new filings may get put in the line behind cases that were already on the docket.
In practical terms, this means that you will likely be waiting months before your filing gets reviewed by a judge.
If this news has you thinking, “meh, I’ll wait to file until Courts get started again,” you’re missing a key piece of info that can cost you big time: Courts in most jurisdictions can’t backdate a change in your support obligation to the date you lost your job. Retroactive relief (read: backdating a change to the amount you have to pay) is available from the date you file, not the date you lost your job. If this sounds confusing, here’s a few hypothetical examples:
Crappy scenario: Let’s say you lost your job on April 1st, and the Courts in your jurisdiction open again July 1st. You file to modify your child support the same day that Courts reopen, July 1st. Two full months have passed since you lost your job. Your petition makes its way through the backlogged bureaucratic mess that Courts across the land are facing, and your petition is finally considered by a Judge on September 1st. At this point five months have elapsed since you lost your job. A judge reviews your modification petition and grants it.
Nightmare scenario: Same facts. Lost your job on April 1st, you file July 1st. The judge checks out your filing on September 1st. The judge finds that you missed an important component of your filing, because you weren’t familiar with the ins and outs of family law— not because you’re dumb, but because this crap is complicated (there’s a reason law school takes three years!). Your petition is not successful, and you have to refile correctly. You refile on September 15th. A judge reviews your new petition on October 1st, and grants it.
The sooner you file, the sooner you get a Court date once Courts reopen. Waiting until everything is back up and running is going to cost you months in accrued payments at the same rate as if you were still working.
Court proceedings are complicated. Court filings are complicated. Family law evolves constantly, thanks to new case law and new legislation. Add to all of this a heaping dose of COVID-19 related Court administrative changes, and you have a very, very high likelihood of filing your petition to modify incorrectly.
We know this is a really challenging time to add another expense, but hiring an attorney to guide you through this process— even for a consultation to give you instructions on how to proceed— really can be a cost-saving measure in the long run. A handful of law firms throughout the US, including ours, have created flat rate clinics to help you through the process.
Having a Court reject your petition means you could have months of child support payments accrue between the time you lose your job and the date your relief becomes effective.
Beyond risking the possibility of having to refile, an attorney may increase the likelihood that the Court grants your modification. Remember, you have to prove a material change in circumstance— not just document that you lost your job. Working with an attorney helps ensure that you have every possible opportunity to show that you are unable to make your child support payments.
If you’ve gone through a custody case before, you may be thinking that hiring a lawyer to help you with your modification is going to cost you thousands and thousands of dollars. This may not be the case. In an effort to help families through the economic fallout of COVID-19, some law firms (ours included) are offering reduced rate services specifically for child support.
Reduced fee modification support can be as low as a few hundred dollars, not the thousands it generally costs.
Look for law firms that specialize in family law, and that have experience in child support. Directories like AVVO and Super Lawyers can help you drill down a list quickly. Call the top three that seem like a good fit, and then ask specifically for limited scope services to prepare your child support modification.
Hiring an attorney for the specific, limited purpose of preparing your filing can keep your costs lower than hiring an attorney to represent you in Court. They file the papers, and you sleep easier knowing that your petition is filed quickly and correctly.
Judges know parents are struggling. Everyone is struggling. It’s become a cliche to write that these times are “unprecedented,” so we’ll spare you. Let’s be more candid: This sucks.
Millions of moms and dads have lost our jobs, and Courts know that families are suffering.
However, judges do want to see that you are at least making an effort to contribute something to your children’s wellbeing. If you are scraping together nickels to pay for rent, this may not be possible. But if you’re in a position to put in an Instacart order for the parent you’re obligated to pay, do it. If you can pay $100, instead of the $1,000 you are obligated to pay, do it.
As with all child support payments, make sure you are paying in a way that you can keep track to show the Court that you have been contributing. Using cash to pay your co-parent is difficult to prove to a Court, so make sure you are making payments in a way that you can have a record of when you file to modify.
The first time your co-parent hears that there is a problem with child support should not be when they receive a notice from the Court months and months after you’ve lost your job. In writing, tell your co-parent that you are not going to be able to pay all/any of your child support obligation because you’ve lost your job or had your income significantly reduced.
Your communication should be brief, professional, and free from any accusations (ie: “you only need my child support because you won’t get a job because you’re too busy sleeping around” and other gross quacking that makes you look bad in Court).
Your email should state three things:
We know this is a terribly difficult time. Child support modifications should be a source of relief, not stress. Unfortunately, the process is extremely complicated and, yes, stressful. We hope the advice above has helped break down what you need to know so you can navigate through this crisis.
There are enough things to worry about right now. Modifying child support shouldn’t be one of them.
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