With millions of people temporarily or even permanently losing their jobs due to the pandemic, what effect will this have child support and alimony obligations in Massachusetts?

Applications for unemployment compensation have skyrocketed in the past month or so with our state experiencing up to 20,000 applications in a single day. At the beginning of May 2020, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 15.1%. Nationwide, nearly 40 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, overwhelming the system in many states, and leaving some people waiting for weeks for relief checks. 

The resulting financial hardship has sparked a call for reductions in child support and alimony to recipients who are relying on payments to keep themselves and children secure. In the face of economic catastrophe and hardship, these individuals are in desperate need of relief.

Massachusetts, like all other states, permits an obligor to petition the court to modify support payments so long as the obligor can demonstrate a substantial decrease in income from a job loss, catastrophic illness, or accident. These obligors who are paying support under a court order can file a Complaint for Modification in the Probate and Family Court, accompanied by a Motion for Temporary Order seeking an immediate reduction in support. 

However, the courts at this time are hearing a reduced number of cases.  However, if your matter is considered an “emergency,” it will hear your case on an expedited basis. For example, if a partner or spouse is experiencing domestic abuse or a child or adult requires appointment of a guardian or conservator to make immediate medical decisions on their behalf, the court will more likely hear the matter either by phone or videoconference. Seeking modification of a child support order or alimony is not considered an emergency and will usually not be heard by the court at this time.

Consequences of Not Paying Obligations

If you lost your job and your income has been substantially reduced, meeting your obligations can be impossible or constitute an extreme hardship. Usually, if you fail to meet your monthly obligations, you risk having your driver’s license suspended as well as any professional license by The Child Enforcement Division of the Department of Revenue (DOR) that handles support payments. You also risk having your payments taken directly from your bank account. The same penalties apply to alimony obligors. Non-payors also face contempt of court citations that can result in fines, and possible jail.

If your obligations are being automatically deducted from your paycheck and you no longer have one, you are still obligated to pay. If you are unable to meet your obligations, the DOR has stated that it is willing to work with you on possible solutions and to not impose penalties. If you can, do your best to borrow funds from family or close friends to avoid arrearages or penalties. 

Steps to Take at This Time

If you are permitted contact with your ex-spouse or other parent, we recommend that you communicate your plight with him/her and produce documentation that your income has vanished or is substantially diminished. However, if your unemployment equals to or even exceeds what you were previously earning, you may have a difficult time explaining how you are now worse off. You might consider entering into a written agreement with the other party or having your and the other party’s divorce lawyer draw up an agreement to reduce or suspend your payments though there is no guarantee that a judge will affirm the agreement or enter it as an order without the need for a hearing. 

Otherwise, making the effort to demonstrate to the recipient party that you are unable to meet your obligations at this time will show a judge that you have acted responsibly and with respect to your former spouse or other parent that is more likely to persuade the court, when your motion is heard, to grant you relief and retroactively reduce or eliminate arrearages. But do not wait to file the Complaint for Modification and Motion for Temporary Order to Reduce Support or Alimony or your argument may not be as compelling to warrant relief. 

If you are receiving unemployment benefits, the court will re-calculate your payments under the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. Merely because you are on unemployment, however, does not automatically mean your support payments will be reduced or arrearages forgiven. 

For those paying alimony, a court may look at the payor’s assets rather than just his/her income in deciding whether to temporarily reduce payments. In any event, contact a divorce lawyer to discuss and  possibly file a Motion to reduce alimony . For all obligors, you are in a much better position if your complaint and motion is filed and in the court docket rather than waiting until the courts are fully open.

Consult Divorce Lawyer Heather M. Ward

Heather M. Ward is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer who has been representing and defending the rights of family law clients for years. If you are experiencing difficulties with making your child support or alimony payments, call her for a free phone consultation at (617) 903-8955.