Modifying Child Support Payments in Tough Economic Times

Although some signs point to a financial recovery, many experts predict that the unemployment rate will be one of the last economic indicators to show improvement. Among the ranks of today's unemployed (and under -employed) workers are many parents who either make child-support payments or rely on them. If unemployment remains high, these parents may have difficulty financially providing for their children.

What happens when a parent cannot make the monthly payments due to loss of a job or other economic hardship? In some cases, court-ordered child support may be modified, if there has been a change in circumstances since the original child support order was made.

How Child Support Payments Are Determined

To understand what sort of changed circumstances qualify a parent for child support modification, it's useful to understand how child support is calculated in the first place.

Nearly all child support payments are established by a court, usually as part of a divorce, separation, or paternity case. Once the dollar amount of the child support payments is established, the parent is expected to pay that amount, on time and in full.

California Family Law Code section 4055 sets out a rather complex algebraic formula for determining the amount. The principal elements in the formula are the net monthly disposable income of each parent, and the percentage of time each parent spends with the child. Therefore, if those elements change, it may be time for a court to take a new look at the child support payments.

The net monthly disposable income is determined by taking the person's full income and subtracting certain deductions like taxes, union dues, health insurance premiums, and even child support payments being made for other children. Thus if the person making payments becomes unemployed or has a significant increase in other expenses such as health insurance, a court may appropriately recalculate the monthly child support amount and establish a lower payment.

The formula also considers the amount of time that the child spends with each parent, under the assumption that the parent who has the child most of the time will have the greater expenses. Therefore if the child has recently been spending more or less time with the parent who pays child support, that may also be a reason to modify the payments.

Keep in mind, as well, that the net disposable income of both parents is part of the equation. This means that if the person receiving the payments gets a raise, that may also justify lowering the monthly payments.

Consequences of Non-Payment

A parent struggling to make timely child support payments should talk to an experienced family law attorney before the payments become overdue to determine if a modification may be possible. Above all, it's important to not just stop paying without receiving a modification from the court. The consequences of non-payment are serious, and could include:

  • Probation or jail time: A parent who is able to pay child support but fails to do so may be found guilty of a misdemeanor and placed on probation, or sentenced to up to one year in jail.
  • State-issued licenses: The state may revoke certain licenses that it grants, such as a driver's license, business license, or professional license (teaching license, cosmetologist license, et cetera).
  • Credit rating: When the Department of Child Support Services is involved, every payment (or failure to pay) may be reported to credit reporting agencies.
  • Passport denial: If an individual owes more than $2500 in child support, the State Department will not issue or renew a passport.
  • Property lien: A lien (a right to take property) may be filed against the real property (which generally means a house but not its contents) of a parent whose support payments are past due. Thus a parent could be forced to sell his or her home to pay child support.
  • Benefits and other payments: The state may also intercept Social Security benefits, tax refunds, and even lottery winnings.

Going to jail, losing a driver's license, or being forced to sell a home could all have a negative impact on the child as well as the parent. Therefore it's a good idea for any parent having trouble with child support payments to talk to an experienced family law attorney (regardless of whether that parent is making payments or receiving payments) to learn more about opportunities for child support modifications.