If you pay child support under an agreement or court order or if you are entitled to receive support from a co-parent, you have no doubt thought about the impact of the economic shutdown on your or the other parent’s continued ability to meet that support obligation. This pandemic is uncharted territory for all but a small coterie of epidemiologists and other scientists who anticipated such a crisis. However, as experienced family lawyers, we believe that there are steps clients who are required to pay or entitled to receive child support should consider to try to protect the family as a whole, defuse conflict, and minimize legal fees or court sanctions:
Negotiate. Before going to Court to request a reduction in support or to try to enforce support awards, please consider negotiating with your co-parent. You can attempt this on your own at first, or involve the lawyers and/or mediators immediately. If the two of you are able to communicate civilly, start there. Discuss both of your financial resources – including current income – and determine if there is a support level that the payor can manage and the recipient can get by on. Consider negotiating a temporary reduction, with arrearages paid later. You will likely have already done this, but if not, scrutinize expenses to eliminate or defer what you can.
If you are able to come to agreement, it should be put in writing – verbal modifications of support obligations are not binding and will not protect the payor from the legal consequences of violating an agreement or court order. Even if you are able to work out a modification of child support between the two of you, consider having your lawyer draft an agreement that can, among other things, protect you in court if it comes to that. If you and the other parent are able to reach a written agreement on your own, you should still consider sending it to your attorney for their review (prior to signing it) and for them to submit it to the Court for entry into the record as part of a consent order.
If one-on-one negotiations are not a viable option, do involve your lawyer. Although involving lawyers can sometimes escalate tensions, we at KSFM, and many attorneys with whom we deal, strive to negotiate with opposing counsels in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Effective negotiations between lawyers can ultimately save their clients significant money, as they avoid costly litigation. Some cases may require the assistance of a mediator, although cost may be a prohibitive factor. Trained mediators are available to conduct sessions online.
Motion to Modify. Courts in the DMV are generally closed for all but emergencies. But if you are unable to meet your child support obligations, it is important that you do not simply stop paying nor reduce your payments on your own. If you and the other parent are unable to agree on a reduction in support, you should alert the Court of your economic hardship through a motion to modify support, even if it will not be heard for several months. We cannot guarantee that doing so will insulate you from court sanctions, but we believe that such demonstrations of good faith in a time of economic hardship will be welcome by the Court. You can prepare this yourself using forms available online. For example, D.C. Superior Court forms can be found here. You can also call the DC self-help line at 202-879-0096.
Your attorney can also prepare this for you. If you came to us, we would want to look closely at your financial situation to provide the strongest justification for your actions. Courts will look at assets as well as income when assessing one’s ability to pay support and assessing requests for modification. We provide our clients with our informed assessment regarding whether and by how much they should be requesting a modification of support.
If the Other Parent Stops Paying. If the other parent cuts or eliminates support payments on their own, you should contact your lawyer. Our first step would be to contact their lawyer or the other parent directly if they are not represented. If we are unable to negotiate with them – for the other parent to resume paying or for us to agree on revised and/or deferred payments – we would file a motion for enforcement. Unfortunately, the Court would not likely deal with this for several weeks or even months, but the fact of your filing can, at times, help in negotiating a resolution.
A Note About Alimony. Modification or reduction of alimony involves a different set of issues, which we will discuss in a separate post.
Our best to all during this difficult time.