We are approaching the first anniversary of when COVID-19 began to significantly disrupt families, including families with separated or divorced parents. Many people have suffered job losses and income cuts, as small business owners, independent contractors and sole proprietors have struggled to keep their businesses afloat amid a widespread financial crisis. For those with spousal support or child support obligations, this has caused confusion and uncertainty as to how the courts would deal with these unprecedented situations.
Since last year, family courts have seen an unusual increase in the number of litigants seeking relief from their various financial obligations to their children or ex-spouses. Before the pandemic, during “normal” pre-COVID scenarios, a person wishing to reduce their child support or alimony had to demonstrate a significant change in their financial situation. This subjective legal standard was already confusing for most litigants, because what seemed “important” to one person might seem insignificant or minor to another. Fortunately, over the years, the courts have dealt with enough of these cases that more reliable criteria have emerged to help guide litigants who wish to reduce their obligations. For example, courts systematically deny redress to litigants whose changed financial situation is of a temporary nature. This is why it is not advisable to rush to court to try to lower child support the day after your job loss, unless you can verify that you will not be rehired in the near future. Typically, judges want to see that litigants who lose their jobs have made continuous and meaningful attempts to find alternative employment before the court considers granting relief. Likewise, for people working in fields where periodic periods of unemployment are common, such as unionized employees, contract workers or seasonal industries, the litigant is expected to budget their paychecks on an annualized basis. so that there is enough money to pay alimony even in months when the worker is unemployed.
The courts are also closely examining the cause of the drop in the income of litigants seeking to reduce their maintenance obligations. Someone who lost their job because their position was terminated or their employer downsized will be subject to less scrutiny than someone who lost their job for just cause, such as dismissal for excessive absences or poor performance. In the latter situation, many judges will refuse the help and keep that party at the same income level they had at their old job, even if they are unemployed or earning less money now. This is called the “imputation” of income. Courts will also charge income to people who voluntarily choose to change jobs for personal reasons such as a desire for a shorter commute or a better work-life balance.
It is under this complex and unpredictable legal rubric that people have rushed to court during the COVID-19 pandemic. While at the start of the pandemic, the courts were reluctant to grant lasting assistance to litigants whose income was reduced due to COVID, judges are now showing more leniency and accommodation in this regard. For example, while under pre-COVID standards a litigant would have to demonstrate several months of effort to find a new job before a judge considers reducing a support obligation, judges are more likely to grant relief immediate action to a litigant who has lost their job due to COVID. However, this does not mean that a litigant can simply expect their obligation to remain weak indefinitely. Instead, some judges grant interim measures, such as temporary reductions in child support, for a month or two, then force the parties to meet again for an update of their status. During the situation update, the courts will explore the litigant’s re-employment efforts in light of the COVID-19 landscape. If a litigant can show that they made good faith efforts to find a new job and were unsuccessful, courts will often extend the reduced assistance for longer periods. Notwithstanding court-awarded short-term child support reductions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, child support and alimony are still subject to review based on changes in the recipient’s or child’s financial situation. debtor. This means that if a litigant were granted a reduction in alimony but then obtained a new job at any time in the future, the recipient of the alimony would have the right to request an immediate recalculation of his or her alimony or alimony. for children and would not have to wait for the court to set up a status procedure. Additionally, if the recipient of child support believes that a debtor is not making legitimate attempts to find new employment, they can file a request for the court to analyze the debtor’s efforts more carefully.
The above may give the impression that if you lose your job due to COVID-19, you can relax and collect unemployment indefinitely while enjoying reduced support obligations. This is not necessarily the case. In addition to regularly reassessing the situation and criticizing the efforts to re-employ a litigant, some courts only suspend enforcement of the initial support obligation, but allowing any deficit to accumulate. For example, if a litigant owes $ 1,000 per month in child support and loses his job due to the pandemic, a judge could keep the obligation at $ 1,000 per month but allow the litigant to pay only $ 600. per month for a while. The unpaid $ 400 per month would accumulate as something called “arrears” and would eventually be paid to the beneficiary in the future. In addition, for temporary situations, judges may also examine the debtor’s assets, such as savings and retirement accounts, and order that alimony be paid from those assets rather than paying alimony to the debtor. from income. These types of arrangements allow the court to balance the shares between the maintenance recipient and the debtor, ensuring that at some point the recipient is free from losses. After all, in most situations, if a debtor pays less alimony than is owed to the recipient, the recipient and the children suffer as well. Courts frequently try to create dynamic solutions that promote symmetry between the two parties.
Another situation that has recently inundated the courts concerns parents who have experienced changes in their income or employment due to increased childcare obligations. The majority of children now participate in 100% virtual or hybrid school models. Especially for families with young children, this has caused people to make quick and sweeping adjustments to their schedules to ensure that a parent is at home overseeing a child’s “online” education. Even parents whose employers allow them to work from home have seen their incomes drop because it is not always possible to juggle full-time home schooling responsibilities and full-time distance work. When a recipient of alimony asks the court for an increase in the debtor’s alimony because of his reduced income in this situation, the courts tend to be more welcoming, even if the decision to stop working is technically. voluntary. In a pre-COVID environment, a litigant who unexpectedly quit work because he suddenly decided he wanted to be a home guard would be under suspicion in court and would not have much success. Now the courts recognize that having children at home full time when they would otherwise be in school 6-10 hours a day is the new normal, and adjustments must be made in the spirit of fairness to the parent who takes these new daylight hours. educational responsibilities.
COVID-19 has brought a host of new challenges to the courts when it comes to alimony and child support matters. Old legal standards in place do not always deliver fair and equitable results in a COVID-19 environment. While there are no ideal solutions that would please everyone in these situations, the courts do their best in the worst of times. If you are experiencing changes in your financial situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is best to seek a knowledgeable and reputable family law attorney to assess your unique situation and determine the best remedy for you. While the path to relief may not always be straightforward, relief may be possible.