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Mendo Lake Family Life

How to Modify Spousal and Child Support if You’re Facing Income Losses Due to COVID-19

Mar 24, 2020 12:53PM
By Erin Levine

Losing your job or small business is devastating. Especially if you’re also paying child or spousal support. Just remember that you are not alone; this is happening to people in communities all over the country. There are ways to make adjustments now (and later) so you can continue to make payments, but at a level that is more appropriate given the state of your current income.

In general, keep in mind that any adjustments made to spousal and child support payments will need to go through the court to become enforceable.

First: Be Upfront and Honest
The best course of action is to talk to your ex directly and explain the situation, even if you’re only anticipating a drastic change in your income. We’re entering new ground as a nation and so many of us will suffer the economic impacts of this virus. So, make honesty your policy, and make it clear to your ex that you want to maintain communication during these uncertain times, and that you plan to readjust payments when business picks up again. That should go a long way in generating good will in response to lower support payments for now.

Remember that your ex is only receiving this money in the first place because they need this support; they will probably need to make adjustments to their own expenditures as a result. The more time you can give to help them plan for this adjustment, the better support negotiations will go for both of you now—and down the road when the economy picks up again.

And, it probably goes without saying, but it’s also a good idea to demonstrate that you’re making adjustments in your own daily life, to demonstrate to your ex that you’re also making sacrifices.

Best Case Scenario: An Agreement on Your Own (in Writing)
If you and your ex can come to agreement on support adjustments between now and a future court date, a stipulation can be prepared and filed so that no court appearance is necessary. As more and more courts close temporarily, this is ideal for a number of reasons. You’ll be able to stay out of court, and you’ll save time and money by working things out together.

One important tip: Being mindful of your tone is more important than ever right now. Anything that could be perceived as a demand or as criticism will only serve to shut your ex down. If your ex can’t hear what you’re saying because he or she is so focused on how you’re saying it, the conversation will go nowhere.

Everyone is trying to do what’s best right now. So if you’re worried that you’re not coming across the right way as you discuss child or spousal support, address it: “I’m concerned that I wasn’t very articulate just now. I really didn’t mean to come across that way. I just want to make sure you know that I want to work this out together in a way that makes sense for both of us, given this extreme situation.”

Once you and your ex agree to the change in support, remember that the agreement must be in writing and prepared as the court requires. If you need or want help, Hello Divorce has lawyers and legal document assistants who are ready to help.

Can’t Agree? File to Modify Support Back to the Date Your Income Took a Hit
If direct, straightforward conversation is not an option for you and your ex, then you might consider filing a motion with the court to preserve the right to modify the amount of support you’re paying back to the date your income took a hit. Doing this will earn you “credit” for support already paid to your ex.

You will need to file with the court for this to happen, and with court closures throughout the state, you may not be able to get a court date to make this adjustment. However, the legal community is hopeful that if filing is not available at the time our clients wish to make their filing, that the court will make exceptions and perhaps allow for backdated filings.

Also, be sure to check your existing court order if you already have one. Sometimes it will require you to “meet and confer” with your ex or their attorney to try and resolve financial issues before resorting to court. It may also require you to notify the other party in writing as soon as something changes with your income —which brings me back to the number one thing I want you to take away from this article: spousal and child support adjustments right now will be easiest for you and your ex if you can both come to agreement on your own.

If you end up filing to modify support back to the date your income took a hit, hopefully when you are able to file, you’ll see some financial relief.

And finally, if your income has suffered dearly or if you’ve lost your job, know that you are not alone, and that there are many resources providing actionable information, advice, and support. I like this one, Your Money: A Hub for Help During the Coronavirus Crisis, which is free, helpful, and updated daily on The New York Times website (no subscription needed for their coronavirus coverage). You’ll find information about unemployment insurance, how to keep the utilities on if you can’t afford them, and where to get free financial planning help.

Erin Levine runs a boutique family law firm in the Bay Area and is the founder of Hello Divorce, which offers online legal help with child support and other legal issues. Find out more at hellodivorce.com.