Dealing With Support Obligations in the Event of Job Loss

As non-essential employees are asked to stay home and businesses temporarily close amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people are being laid off in record numbers. Some businesses will jump back to life when normalcy returns, while others will not survive. Many payors of alimony and child support are wondering how they will meet their support obligations, while many recipients of alimony and child support are worried about what happens if support stops coming or if their own income is lost. Here are five things you need to know:

  • Be patient. The Probate and Family Courts in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are currently closed to the public and operating with limited staff in the buildings. Each county is making its own determination as to how to comply with Standing Order 2-20, entitled “Court operations under the exigent circumstances created by COVID-19.” In general, only true emergency matters are being heard and then mainly by telephone only. In some instances, the courts have indicated that seeking enforcement of a support order will not be considered an emergency and will be handled after the courts re-open.  Other counties will handle enforcement through contempt if the court staff determines it is an emergency after review of the papers filed. If you are not receiving court-ordered alimony or child support, speak with someone at Burns & Levinson about how the courthouse in your county is handling enforcement matters.
  • Be civil. Divorce brings up a lot of feelings of resentment that linger long after the acrimony of the divorce process is over. With courts closed, letting go of resentment and cooperating is more important than ever. If you lose your job during the pandemic, reach out to your former spouse to see if you can work together during these unprecedented times to find a temporary solution to handle the decrease in income suffered by one or both of you. Or, reach out to your attorney to see if he or she can work out something temporary with your former spouse until the courts reopen. This is not a time for taking harsh positions or trying to “win.”
  • Only “merged” alimony provisions are modifiable. Once the courts reopen, there will undoubtedly be a need for some alimony orders to be changed due to a permanent decrease in income of either the payor spouse or the recipient spouse. Alimony that “merged” into a Judgment of Divorce can be changed upon a showing of a material change in circumstances. Alimony that “survived” the Judgment of Divorce cannot be changed except in the most extreme of circumstances. If you were divorced by agreement, the Judgment of Divorce will indicate whether the alimony provisions of your agreement survived or merged into the Judgment. If you were divorced after a trial, your alimony provisions are automatically merged and can be changed.
  • Child support can be modified. Unlike alimony, a child support order can always be changed when a party proves a material change in circumstances. In fact, if your case falls within the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, you can obtain a modification by showing that the guidelines figure is different from the amount currently being paid. Filing for an increase or decrease in child support while the courts are closed may or may not be permitted depending on the particular circumstances of your case and the county in which your case is heard. Burns & Levinson can provide guidance on whether your circumstances warrant seeking an emergency hearing or if you will need to wait for the court to reopen.
  • Seek Guidance from the Department of Revenue. If you pay or receive child support through the Department of Revenue (DOR), you can seek guidance directly from the DOR. If you were laid off and you pay child support through an automatic deduction from your pay check, you should know that your child support obligation continues unless and until you obtain a new court order even though you are no longer employed. You can make arrangements to pay your support directly to the DOR or talk to a representative about obtaining a modification of your order. All DOR child support walk-in centers are closed until further notice. However, if you need assistance from the DOR relating to your child support, you can either visit the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSE) website[BV1]  or call the service center at (800) 332-2733 or (617) 660-1234. 

Author: Robin Lynch Nardone
Robin Lynch Nardone is chair of the firm’s Divorce & Family Law Group and co-chair of the Private Client Group. Robin has more than 20 years of experience helping clients through challenging family law matters, whether through negotiation and settlement, or contested litigation. She specializes in handling high net worth divorce, high conflict custody/parenting disputes, same-sex marriage and divorce issues, paternity actions, removal cases, child support and alimony actions, as well as adoption. She can be reached at rlnardone@burnslev.com or 617.345.3265.

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