What do you do if you’ve lost your job or had a change in income as a result of or related to the Coronavirus?
As the Coronavirus moves through the nation, the state and our community, it has impacted nearly every aspect of our day to day lives. As we all do our part to make sure we’re following orders to shelter in place or exercise social distancing rules to address immediate health and medical needs, a significant number of people have experienced job loss and other employment changes at record breaking levels as a result of these protective measures. With the increase in layoffs and job loss, there is also a corresponding demand for changes to support orders.
For many families living within a tight budget, a person becoming unemployed represents a huge financial blow for the entire family, for those both paying and receiving spousal support and/or child support alike. For a person obligated to pay support, the immediate question is how to continue to make spousal support and child support payments. For a person relying on support payments, the concern at the forefront of their minds is how they will meet his or her daily needs and the needs of their children.
Modifying Spousal Support or Child Support
Unless you and your former spouse, partner or co-parent agreed that spousal support or child support was non-modifiable at the time support was ordered, Oregon law contemplates and allows for a party to seek a modification to adjust his or her support award when a substantial change in circumstances occurs. This is true whether you are paying support or receiving it.
If a person loses a job or has a significant reduction of income for any reason, including the current pandemic, that constitutes a basis to seek a modification. A modification requires the person paying or receiving support to file a Motion with the Court requesting spousal support and/or child support decrease or increase. In addition, the person filing the Motion needs to explain to the Court the reason(s) the current circumstances, in the face of the pandemic, have created a significant change to the financial circumstances than that which existed at the time of the original support award. The change could be in income, necessary expenses or both.
When to Modify Support
A person impacted by a significant change who wishes to seek a modification should file this request, whether it be for modifying child and/or spousal support, with the Court as soon as possible. Most courts are limiting in person appearances to the most critical matters in the community (primarily matters related to physical safety). As a result, there is a significant delay in non-essential proceedings, even if those proceedings affect a person’s ability to meet his or her financial obligations. Despite these delays, when a request for a modification of child support or spousal support is filed is significant.
When seeking a modification of support, it is important to ask the Court that any change to the support obligation be retroactive, or backdated to the time the motion was filed with the Court. This means that even if it takes several months for the parties and the issue to come before a Judge, when the issue is finally presented, the Judge will have the option to order any change be applied back to the time of the initial request. Court rules are being developed and adjusted almost daily to address previously unidentified issues that have arisen as a result of necessary restrictions to Court access due to the health crisis. While statewide rules may be forthcoming, it is important to review the local court rules within each county or consult with an attorney to assist you in understanding the process and keep you up to date as the process in each county changes. Identifying the earliest opportunity and appropriate process to seek a change in support in a particular county can have a significant impact on the amount of retroactive relief that may be possible, so do not delay.
What to do to Prepare for the Modification
In the time between initiating a modification proceeding and actually reaching a final result, there is still a lot that can be done to use this interim period productively. It is important to keep records of all communications from your employer with respect to changes in employment status and income. It is also important to keep detailed records of efforts to secure new employment or to obtain unemployment benefits.
It is also important to communicate any change in employment to the person receiving support so he or she can attempt real-time adjustments to account for any change in support if payments will be reduced or cannot be made. While it is important to remember that any communication between the person paying and person receiving support could potentially be used in Court, most judges expect parties paying support to communicate changes accurately and respectfully.
Remember also that unless there is a true inability to pay, a person obligated to pay support is better off paying a reduced amount of support rather than terminating support payments all together. Demonstrating best efforts to fulfill support obligations can have a meaningful impact on the relationship with the recipient party and also how a Judge views the case if ever presented in Court.
Other Options to Consider while Access to Court is Limited.
Similarly, attorneys and mediators are adjusting to the “new normal” and adapting their practices to comply with social distancing restrictions. This means that you and your former spouse or co-parent can and should attempt to resolve any support issue in mediation or other type of alternative dispute resolution, whether attorneys assist in the process or not.
When the time comes to try to resolve your case, whether in alternative dispute resolution or in Court, having an accurate record of the circumstances as they change over time will be significant. Demonstrating a substantial change in circumstances occurred and what the resulting impact to income and expenses has been for each party will be important information for the Court. Make sure you also check in with your attorney as a lot of work can still be done to help reach a resolution, even if the Courts are not hearing non-emergency family law cases currently.
Many challenging issues have arisen because of the pandemic and these unprecedented circumstances. Contact our firm today to schedule a time to discuss how to best address and navigate these changes. Remember, at some point, the crisis will wane and your family law matter will be resolved.
We Can Help.
There’s nothing more important than families, especially during a time of crisis. If COVID-19 has affected your financial support circumstances and you are interested in learning more, please give us a call. We’re scheduling virtual consultations today. Call our office at (503)227-1515 or contact us online, anytime.
*This is general information only and not meant to provide specific legal advice. *
Authored by Katie Carson Goss, family law attorney, Gevurtz Menashe. Katie is a member of the Oregon State Bar and focuses her practice exclusively on family law issues such as divorce, parenting and custody issues, child and spousal support, relationships agreements, appeals and more.