Child Support Modifications: Adapting to Economic Shifts and Life Changes

There are several reasons why your personal finances and household budget may be in a bit of a pinch these days. Inflation has not cooled down as some had hoped. We are seeing prices increase year over year at nearly three times our historical average here in the USA. For families with children, these costs make a big difference. What used to be a ten-dollar cost to your household may now be a thirty-dollar cost. This trend does not seem to have an endpoint in sight. What was supposed to be temporary inflation after the pandemic ended just never seemed to end itself.

Another area where household budgets are under a pinch relates to wages. While wages have increased in recent years it is not as if wages have kept up with inflation. What happens in that case? Credit cards are being used now more than ever to pay for household items and things like groceries. While unemployment may still be low, that does not mean that personal economies are doing well. You can consider what your household looks like in terms of its household income versus what your bills are. I think most of us can say that what we spend has gone up in recent years and whether your household income has increased depends on what your job is as well as other factors.

Part of your income, whether you consider it this way or not, could be child support. If you have gone through a family law case previously and had child support ordered then that support is being used to help you pay bills, care for your child, and perform any other necessary household actions. That the child support has stayed consistent over the years or months reflects the court order that established it. Child support does not increase due to inflation as other benefits may.

On the other hand, if you are paying child support on behalf of one of your children then you need to account for that child support each month in your household budget, as well. Let’s say that you pay $1000 per month in child support. When you perform a household budget that means that you must take into consideration that $1000 of your monthly income cannot be used to pay for housing, pay bills, pay debt, or spend in any other way. Again, your child support obligation does not decrease just because the purchasing power of your dollars does not go as far as it did in earlier years.

So, where does this leave us? I think it presents us with a situation where you may want to find out more about modifying child support. Whether you are paying or receiving child support, there may be circumstances in your life that merit a modification in your opinion. However, if inflation isn’t a good enough reason for a court to modify your child support, then we need to figure out what a sufficient reason may be to change your support order one way or another.

Change is constant

To be fair, just about everyone in our world experiences some degree of change every year- if not more recently. Children are born. Job loss happens. Promotions happen. To that extent, we can acknowledge that your life’s changes may have also had an impact on your income or on how well you can pay child support. When you have child support on your plate- either in receiving it or paying it- there is no telling just how much your external circumstances can impact your ability to live using your child support in that effort. Whether those external circumstances are sufficient cause to bring and win a modification case is why we are writing this blog post today.

When it comes to the ins and outs of a child support modification case there are a few similarities with the divorce or initial child custody lawsuit that you had filed or responded to the first time you were in the family courts of Texas. However, since you already have a court with continuing jurisdiction over your case you will file your modification lawsuit there. Likewise, if you are responding to a modification filed by a co-parent then you would need to respond to the lawsuit in that way, as well. Otherwise, the process is different and the way that you proceed with a modification case is different than how you proceed in a divorce, for example.

First, a Petition to Modify Child Support would be filed in the court that issued those initial child support orders. The petition to modify should be filed after a considerable amount of thought is paid to the question of whether a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred for you, your co-parent, or one of your children. This is one of the ways that a child support modification case differs dramatically from a divorce. In a divorce, you do not have to be very careful or particular about how you phrase your reasoning for the divorce in your petition. You do not need to specify a reason at all. Texas is a “no-fault” divorce state which means that your reason for the divorce can be nothing more than irreconcilable differences. Meaning that if you and your spouse have issues in the marriage which you believe cannot be reconciled a court will grant your divorce.

On the other hand, a modification case in Texas is not so easy to get off the ground. Sure, you can file your petition and then hope for the best, but you need to have more of a plan than in a divorce. Specifically, you must be able to show that a material or substantial change in circumstances has occurred for a relevant party to your divorce. This is a heavier burden to bear or a higher hurdle to clear- whichever analogy suits you better. It’s easy to file a modification for child support but being able to get yourself before a judge is not as simple. Your case may be dismissed by the judge early on in the process, so you need to be intentional about how you are going to go about winning and proceeding with your case.

What are the circumstances under which a modification for child support may be successful?

There are limited circumstances under which a parent can modify child support, either up or down. This does not mean that it is impossible to do, however. What you should ideally be aiming for is a situation where you have a plan in mind. You need to have thought through these issues sufficiently to have a game plan before you even file a case. In your petition needs to be an affidavit that states to the court what the circumstances are in which you believe a modification is now justified. If the judge reviews the affidavit and does not believe your case has merit, you won’t even get inside the courtroom. Courts don’t want to, and frankly could not handle, a situation where everyone who wanted to modify a court order would be able to do so for any reason. Therefore, this higher hurdle has been established to allow the courts to attend to more pressing matters and then address modifications in only the most meritorious of situations.

First, you should consider when your child support orders were issued. If the orders are more than three years old, then you are off to a good start. Now you would need to look at the Texas Family Code and determine whether the amount of child support owed between then and now would have changed by at least twenty percent or $100. You need to be able to calculate child support based on your net monthly income now and what it was back when your order was issued. If the difference is greater than the 20% or $100 that we just discussed, then you have a chance to win your modification.

Keep in mind, that you are creating a case out of hypothetical numbers. You may not know exactly what your co-parent earns, but you have heard through the grapevine that he earns more money now and that you have a friend who has the same job where you can base his income. When you are dealing with hypothetical numbers, assumptions, and general talk about what someone is earning it is best to have the advice of an experienced family law attorney to draw from. It is not a good idea to file a modification based on what you think you know. On top of that, you need to calculate the child support correctly based on those alleged numbers. This is not going to be easy, either. Having an attorney by your side allows you to present a court with firmer numbers and a case that is not built entirely on assumptions and presumptions.

So, what does this mean for you on a practical level? If you are the parent who receives child support, then you should have good reason to try and be aware of what your co-parent earns. This is easier said than done. Even if you have a good relationship with the person, it is still not the easiest thing in the world to try and ask your co-parent how much money he earns. That may be a little obvious even for the most adventurous of parents. However, if your co-parent seems to be buying himself new things all the time or if you know for certain that he makes more money now because he told you as much that may be a situation where you want to discuss child support to see if a resolution can be reached before you even make it to family court. The more of a discussion that can be had the better off all parties may be.

On the other hand, if you are the parent who pays child support then there is no question that you know how much money you make now versus how much you made four or five years ago when child support was first assessed in your case. This means that you should also be acutely aware that the child support you are paying is too high. It would take a real person of character to tell a judge that you are paying too little in child support based on an increase in income although I’m sure this has happened before. However, for the most part, if you are a parent who pays child support then you are likely going to be interested in having your child support reduced over time. A reduction in income is the most direct way to accomplish this.

This income-based method to increase or decrease child support is what I like to think of as an “objective” means to accomplish the child support modification that you seek. However, there is a subjective method to do so as well that does not require a calculator or a calendar. This subjective method relies upon you making an argument in a petition for modification which is that a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred which has led to a correction being necessary in child support one way or the other.

When it comes to this sort of situation you are relying upon the specific circumstances of your case being enough to overcome the presumption that the original child support figure is correction. Make no mistake- when you file a petition to modify child support it isn’t as if the court will assume that you are correct, and that child support needs to be modified either up or down depending upon your petition. Rather, you are going to have to prove to the court the current amount of child support is incorrect based on your case. This can be more difficult than you would think.

Family law attorneys spend a great deal of time and energy building up cases for clients to show that a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred. Yes, life can change at the drop of a hat. We are all familiar with the striking changes to life we saw happen in 2020 and 2021. Some of those changes may persist as far as your health, your employment, and a host of other issues. For that, a material and substantial change in circumstances may be observable by a family court judge. However, the burden is on you to prove that this occurred with evidence.

We have already covered that a material and substantial change in circumstances could be related to your income as the paying parent. For example, let’s say that your old job went away due to the pandemic, and you were forced to take a new job that pays you less. If your new income is substantially less, then this would not be a difficult argument to make that a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred which renders the current child support order incorrect and in need of modification.

Another situation that could have arisen is that you as the noncustodial parent are now in charge of the children on a primary basis. The whole reason why you were ordered to pay child support in the first place was because you are a noncustodial parent. This means that the custodial parent is with the children more and bears more of a burden in the daily care of your children. That daily care means costs that she has to bear which you ordinarily do not have to. Therefore, you were ordered to pay child support to even out those costs as much as possible.

However, it could be that you are now the parent who oversees the daily care of your child. There are a million reasons why this may be the case but all you need to know is that as the primary caretaker of your child, you should not be made to pay child support moving forward. Now, if this means that you need to file a modification of your own to request that you be named legally as the primary conservator then that is something for you to consider. Also, you may need to think about any past child support that you owe. These amounts are not wiped clean due to you becoming the de facto or even the actual primary conservator of your child.

There are many moving pieces to a child support modification case. The best course of action for you to take is to consider all the circumstances and then try to hire an experienced family law attorney. When you are dealing with the well-being of your children as well as thousands of dollars annually, it is a wise investment for you to consider making.


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