Many of the blog posts that we have been writing the past few days have dealt with the intersection of family law and COVID-19. By now we are all familiar with the pandemic that has seemingly impacted every area of our lives. If you are involved in a family law case then this is certainly one of the many areas that has been impacted. Access to the courts, inability to have your case mediated and even difficulties finding an attorney who can take your case may be relevant to you and your circumstances.
There is another dimension to family law cases that is not as readily apparent to those who are not involved in this area of the law. Many people taking an outside looking inside perspective assume that family law cases are all about upset husbands and wives and the children who are caught in the middle. Truthfully, there is quite a bit of that involved in these cases. However, underneath the actual family dynamics for yours and any other person are usually disputes and problems related to money.
It just so happens that money problems are going to be made worse during this pandemic. You can go online and find many articles that will tell you to what extent American families live paycheck to paycheck. Basically, the overall theme of the articles is that Americans have little money in the bank for emergencies, no cash to pay for daily items and are living in a world of credit cards and paychecks that don’t last until the end of the month. I’m not here to tell you my opinions on this subject. What I am here to do is to tell you that it is a reality for a huge chunk of folks in southeast Texas and around the country.
The coronavirus pandemic set off a chain reaction in our world. Under the banner of health and safety, state and local governments instituted restrictions on our movement that inherently made work a secondary consideration. Many jobs, especially those that involve “non essential” fields of employment were either put on pause or made to work from home. Some of these jobs continue to this day in the remote working world. Other jobs were furloughed in hopes of being able to start back up once the ok is given by your state and local governmental officials. Still other jobs were eliminated and are not expected to return.
All of this was occurring while the local economy was hit with another punch related to loss in field of oil an gas employment. When demand hit close to zero for gas and oil products, the companies who drill and refine crude oil had a problem on their hands. There were fewer and fewer places to store all the oil that they had been pumping. This confluence of events led to the price of oil hitting historic lows. In the process, people who work in the oil and gas industry and the people who work to serve that industry from the outside lost employment.
This is the backdrop that we find ourselves in currently. An economy that is struggling due to self inflicted blows, families that were already living on the edge financially, and personal circumstances that could lead families to struggle even more now. If your family is facing a family law case on top of all these other scenarios then I invite you strap in and stay a while today on our blog. I am going to walk you through some important issues related to child support, spousal support/maintenance and how these issues interact with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Child Support- what is it for, what does it do and how will it impact your life now
Child support is a contentious topic in any family law case. Something about paying money to support your kids but where your ex-spouse is the middleperson in the equation who receives the money directly from you tends to upset a fair number of people. I don’t think there are many parents who pay child support who do not want to help their children. However, with economic uncertainty and the constant of having to pay your ex-spouse the money, many responsible parents have issues with paying support of this kind.
The idea behind paying child support has to do with both parents having some skin in the game as far as being responsible for the upbringing of their children. One parent will have primary custody of the child meaning that this parent cares for the child on a daily basis and provides for that child’s needs more frequently than the other parent.
Let’s assume that you are the non-custodial parent. You see your child on the first, third and fifth weekends of each month and split holidays with your ex-spouse during the year. You see your child a fair bit (somewhere around 44% of the time during the year) but there the other parent has more time with your child. Greater time with the child means more of the responsibility to pay for that child’s food, clothing, lodging, etc. Child support steps in to help fill in the gaps to make sure that you are contributing in a near “equal” fashion towards that support.
Child support is due typically at the beginning of the month. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is the state body who administers the payment, receipt and distribution of child support. You may recall that in your divorce you were made to submit a wage withholding order to your employer which ordered your company to divert a certain percentage of you to go towards the support of your child. The money goes to your ex-spouse directly from your check before you even have an opportunity to spend it.
Your ex-spouse will then take the money and (the story goes) uses it to pay for essentials for your child. Of course, there is no way to ensure that your ex-spouse spends that money on your child. I have had more than one former client ask if we can force their ex-spouse to disclose where the child support money he or she pays is being spent. Just know that once the child support leaves your paycheck it is gone and you are not entitled to an accounting on how it is spent (or not spent).
Problems with finances lead to problems with child support
Now that we have gone over the basics of child support let’s see how this pandemic could negatively impact your ability to pay child support. Suppose that you lost your job at the beginning of the pandemic and are struggling to find consistent work since then. You were able to find a couple of contract jobs to work but your income from those jobs does not come close to equaling what you used to earn.
Meanwhile your rent has not decreased in this time. You read about those landlords that are waiving rent payments for a period of time after this crisis started, but yours is not one of those landlords. You managed to scrape by paying rent in April and May but with rent coming due tomorrow you know that it is going to be a struggle to pay rent in June. You are closing in on a situation where you are going to have to decide what to pay next month: rent or child support.
Nobody could blame you for choosing to pay rent over child support. Unfortunately child support will still be due. You can reach out to your ex-spouse and inform her of your circumstances while calling the OAG and doing the same. What happens next will depend on your particular circumstances.
Modifying a child support order
The most straightforward way to get your family court order changed would be to file for a modification. A modification seeks to change the child support obligation in a downward direction. You would need to show a court that your modification is in the best interests of your child and that your circumstances, that of your child or that of your ex-spouse have materially and substantially changed since the rendition of your last order. If either of these two circumstances are not true then your modification will be approved no matter how compelling your financial circumstances are.
Spousal support and Spousal Maintenance
Most of us have heard about the word “alimony” from television and movies. The rich couple gets divorced and the wife is asking a judge to award her alimony so that she can continue to live in the lap of luxury- the condition to which she has become accustomed to. It would be nice if all alimony fights were this straightforward but for the most part they are not.
In Texas spousal support falls into one of three categories: temporary spousal support, spousal maintenance and contractual alimony. Temporary spousal support refers to payments from you to your spouse during the divorce to help her pay bills and adjust to life as a single person. Spousal maintenance are mandatory payments based on the results of a trial made from you to your ex-spouse after a divorce. Contractual alimony are payments of spousal support made by you to your ex-spouse that were agreed to in mediation.
There are conditions that can cut off the responsibility that you have to pay spousal support after your divorce. The first is that your ex-spouse may have begun to live with another person on a full time basis with whom he or she is engaged in romantic relationship with. For a long time this would have meant that your ex-spouse remarried. However, in today’s world it could just mean that he or she started living with their romantic partner. In this scenario you could file a petition with the court to stop all spousal support payments based on cohabitation.
Another measure that you can take to stop paying post-divorce maintenance or alimony would be to argue that, much like with child support, you are unable to make the support payments due to a material and substantial change in circumstances. The most common change that I am aware of is that your income could have dropped so much that you are unable pay the level of support that you are ordered to.
To make this argument you would need to be very clear and concise about how you are no longer earning your past levels of income, the reasons why and provide proof that what you say is true. Tax returns and paystubs would seem to be the way to go in this regard. If you can provide evidence that you absolutely cannot pay your spousal support then you can have that obligation reduced or eliminated altogether. In a time of economic uncertainty to the extreme, this could be an option for you to choose from.
Either way, whether your matter relates to child support or spousal maintenance, you should consider hiring an attorney before proceeding with either type of case. These are complex matters where thousands of dollars are at stake. It may seem counterintuitive to spend money right now when you are trying to reduce your expenditures, but paying for an experienced family law attorney to advocate for you is an investment in your future.
Questions about family law, alimony or child support? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have questions about the material that we shared with you today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week via phone and video conference. These consultations can go a long ways towards helping you understand your circumstances more fully. We pride ourselves on being strong advocates for our clients and hope to be able to help you and your family as well. Thank you for choosing to spend part of your day with us on our blog.