Layoffs Hit Family Courts: What Happens if I Can't Afford Child Support Payments?

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on March 30, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Rising unemployment has a ripple effect on the economy in a variety of ways, and the New York Times reports that one consequence for Family Courts across the country has been a drastic rise in the amount of child support modification cases being heard. This recent increase in inquiries regarding modification is particularly alarming because it includes "parents who previously paid diligently but are now having trouble." Although child support modification cases are not a rarity, parents themselves facing possible furloughs, layoffs, or pay cuts might be asking themselves what happens if they can no longer afford their child support payments?

The specific laws and procedures vary from state to state, but a common rule is that child support may be modified when there exists a "substantial change in circumstances". Such a change in circumstances would include a decrease in income due to the loss of a job, and could also be found as the result of a pay cut. As a sidenote, the standard also applies upward, which is to say a parent receiving child support can apply for modification should there be an increase in income for the other side (or a previously unemployed parent becomes employed). As noted in the NYT piece, judges "[p]resented with documentation of falling incomes and rising expenses...often have little choice but to grant the downward adjustments, even in the face of protests from mothers struggling to support children."

One important tip for parents in these circumstances is to act promptly to apply for a modification, particularly in the context of a layoff. The obligation to pay child support will otherwise probably continue in full, as laws usually only allow courts to modify future child support payments (often measured from the time that a parent applies for modification and notifies the other parent). Parents who lose their job might be understandably concerned about the cost of paying a lawyer for child support modification, but in the long-run that could end up leaving them owing significantly more in arrearages (unpaid support) than the cost of paying a lawyer. Finally, divorced parents can sometimes work out an agreement for modified support together, which they can then submit for court approval.

A Family Court judge in New York told the New York Times that the flood of modification requests comes from all areas and income levels, and courts are generally receptive to the difficult circumstances facing those who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Below are some links to more information on child support.

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