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Covid-19 Coronavirus Impact on divorce and child custody in Texas

As if any of us needed one more thing in our lives to cause stress and disruption, the coronavirus came swooping in during the month of March and sort of knocked us for a loss. I hope that you and your family have been safe and healthy over the past six or seven weeks. It is not easy to go through the changes that we have. Our kids have gradually learned how to live without parks, pools, trips to friend’s homes and even graduations. 

Many of you reading this blog post are probably dealing with issues associated with divorce and child custody cases in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, there are economic considerations to make in this time as well. Many places of business been closed since March due to the stay at home/shelter in place orders implemented by local government officials. On top of that, our local economy has taken and likely will continue to take a hit from the loss of oil and gas jobs. 

All of this hurts those families who rely on income from jobs impacted by the coronavirus. For instance, if you are obligated to pay your ex-spouse child support each month the loss of income associated with your small business being forced to shut down can be devastating if you do not have money in reserve. In that case, a modification of your child support orders may have been an idea that has crossed your mind.

The problem with attempting a child support modification is that many (all?) of the family courts of southeast Texas are closed for the foreseeable future. While getting in front of a judge for a video hearing may be possible on an emergency basis, the modification of a child support order probably doesn’t rise to the level of an emergency. Your stimulus check can only go so far and your savings may be exhausted soon. What can you do next?

Does this person sound like you?

Let’s take a hypothetical person (Tim) whose situation and circumstances may mirror your own. Suppose that you are a small business owner who was forced to shut down operations due  to the various stay at home orders that were implemented across our area. As a result of the shutdown you had no income come into your household for the first few weeks of April. Since then you have done your best to get side jobs in an effort to sustain yourself but are earning nowhere near what your business had brought in. 

Now that the government has allowed us all to come out of our homes and open businesses back up, your hope was that you would be able to begin operating your business as normal. However, the shutdowns have made it difficult for you to keep full stock of the items that you sell.  With items on backorder with significant delays in place you realize that this is not going to be a quick turnaround for you or the business. 

We can see that this is a problem not only for our hypothetical shop owner but for the person who owns the commercial building where Tim has his business. If Tim can’t sell products and can’t pay his rent then the landlord will go without money as well. On and on, the cycle will eventually impact most everyone associated with Tim and his business. Having to choose to pay rent or pay child support is not an easy decision to have to make. Obviously Tim will want to make sure his kids are provided for, but if he can’t stay open this month then he won’t have the money to do much of anything. 

Whether or not Tim would be able to get a reduction in child support would require us to look closely at the numbers. Have his circumstances changed to a sufficient extent to justify a modification? There is no such thing as an automatic reduction in child support just because Tim (or you) lost your job due to the coronavirus. In the immediate sense of things, it would be beneficial for Tim to contact his ex-wife and let her know of his circumstances. Then, he should contact a family law attorney who can work with him on figuring out if he is in a position to reduce his child support obligation through a modification. 

How can child support be reduced in Texas?

The standard that a court would look to regarding whether or not a modification/reduction of your child support obligation is warranted does not change just because we are in the middle of a pandemic. Fortunately there are many ways for you to qualify for a reduction. It’s just a matter of selecting the correct grounds for a reduction and specifying that in your petition to modify. 

The broadest point that I can make to you regarding a reduction in child support is that you or your child’s circumstances have been materially and substantially changed since the last time that a court order was issued in your case. That could have happened last year or it could have happened ten years ago. Either way, a court would need to see that a big, big change has developed in your life or the life of your child to consider a modification request. 

Specifically for child support, a judge would be interested to see whether or not it has been three years since the date of your last court order being issued or modified. That, or, the amount of child support under your current order would need to be different by either 20 percent or $100 from an order that would be created in the present day. 

Has your income changed significantly due to COVID-19?

As we just laid out in our hypothetical discussion above, it is very possible that your income could have seen a significant drop since the middle of March. It isn’t just you or your family who may be in this boat. A simple internet search will reveal multiple polls showing just how many of us are feeling the economic impact of shutting down huge portions of our economy. 

You may have even come to realize that your line of work is not going to work (pun intended) for the long run for your family. For instance, the oil and gas industry had been struggling throughout 2020 and the coronavirus really pushed the industry over the edge into struggles that it has not seen in years. If you work in that field or in an area of the economy that serves those who work in oil and gas this downturn may have led you to believe that you need to find a new line of work. 

If you have already begun that transition and are earning less money than you are used to then you may want to consider an attempt to modify and reduce the amount of child support that you are obligated to pay. An analysis should be performed to compare your former income against the income that you are earning currently in order to determine what sort of odds you have to actually get the modification approved by a judge. 

For instance, if you have entered into a completely new industry where you are starting on the ground floor of jobs would be looking at a long climb up to management level positions, then your income will be lower for a substantially longer period than a person who is starting a business and after a few weeks could see their income rise. Consider also that if your former employer provided health insurance for your children than that, too, may be an issue that needs to be considered in the current analysis. 

A circumstance that is unrelated to the coronavirus that may justify a reduction in your monthly child support obligation is the birth of a child since your last trip to the courthouse. If you are now responsible for the care of a child who was not born at the time your last order was issued then you have a straightforward path to reducing the percentage of your income that goes towards child support. 

Work with your ex-spouse to reduce your child support- if possible

Co-parenting is a word that you hear a great deal at the time you are getting a divorce. Family law attorneys try to give useful advice about working with your ex-spouse when it comes to issues related to your child. Put your past disagreements aside and do what’s best for your child. Well, that sounds terrific in theory. In practice it can be very, very difficult to execute. Your ex-spouse may be struggling with her own financial issues during this difficult time. 

You would need to tread cautiously into a discussion about reducing your child support payments, even if your plan would be to do so for a short period of time. If you have income from just one place of employment you can share those paystubs with your ex-spouse to show her just how much your income has decreased. However, if you are paid from multiple sources then it may be more difficult to show how and why a reduction is justified. 

I would approach an ex-spouse directly and honestly about your financial circumstances if you are interested in doing that. At the very least you would make her aware that you are struggling with coming up with money to pay all your bills right now- child support included. From there, you can propose any number of ideas as far as how child support should be paid and to what extent she may be willing to go without support while you get back on your feet. 

Sometimes, scenarios like this play out well for a parent in your shoes. You may find that she is more willing than you would have thought to wait a month or more to receive child support payments. As my grandmother would tell me, if you don’t ask the question the answer is always “no.” So, you may as well ask the question and see if your ex-spouse will work with you on temporary and informal reductions in your child support.

What to do if you can’t work out an agreement directly with an ex-spouse?

In the event that your ex-spouse tells you that she cannot consider an even temporary reduction in your child support obligation then you will likely need to talk to an attorney about filing something in court to get that process started. Filing a lawsuit does not mean that you are trying to take advantage of anyone or violate their trust. You are not considering a modification because you are mad at your ex-spouse or want your child to suffer. You are doing this because you are at the end of your rope, financially speaking.

A child support modification can become complex if you are needing to verify and prove wages or earnings from multiple sources. Also, while negotiation is possible on this subject during a court case it often works better if you have an intermediary (like a family law attorney) available to conduct those negotiation sessions. There may be a middle ground that you have not even considered which could suit you and your family well. Regardless, now is a time to attempt a modification in the event that your income has seen a decrease due to the coronavirus shutdowns. 

Questions about family law in Texas? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the information contained in today’s blog post please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys are available to assist you six days a week by phone or video with free of charge consultations. Ask our office to provide perspective and knowledge and we will deliver for you. We are here to help families in our community and would be honored to serve you and yours. 

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