COVID-19 and Child Support Payments

Desperate Parents Seek Answers

Parents who receive regular child support and other spousal payments are starting to see the taps run dry because of COVID-19.

Ex-Spouses are unilaterally cutting off court-mandated financial support, claiming government orders to stop work or close their businesses due to COVID-19 have left them without the ability to meet the regular cash obligation.

I am fielding call after call from panicked clients asking what they can do to collect.  I’m also getting inquiries from parents who are paying support inquiring whether they have to maintain the same level of support when their business has been forced to close or they’ve been temporarily laid off.

It’s a stressful and emotionally draining situation. So what does the law state?  While the answer may be simple, the solutions are often complex.

If you are under Court order or you have a legal agreement to make payments, those payments CANNOT be terminated or reduced unless and until you have an agreement or Order to vary.

Therefore, you cannot stop paying full support.

COVID-19 does not automatically excuse or justify a deferral or refusal to pay support.  The law is clear that a payor cannot prioritize his or her other financial needs over a child support order.

Government benefits, assets, savings, credit opportunities, or financial aid are often available to the person obliged to make the support payments.

The payor can also seek deferrals of utility bills, property taxes, mortgage payments, and taxes.

In ordinary times, the test to change child support is a material change in circumstances.  However, a change that is temporary or minimal is not likely to meet this threshold, and it may be too early in the COVID-19 crisis for the payor spouse to know whether their current situation is substantial and if it will continue well into the future.

As a lawyer trained in Collaborative Family Law, I have been helping clients negotiate temporary reduction and deferral agreements, without involving the courts.

We are doing this before the outstanding amounts become unmanageable and before the children and parents become unable to survive financially.

These temporary agreements are designed to bridge the difficult times and will not affect the long-term support.

With courts closed because of the pandemic, and hearing only urgent matters, it could take months for such disputes to be heard and resolved.

The Ministry of the Attorney General is trying to help with an online option to update child support.  However, it is a process that requires consent of both spouses and has a series of criteria that many people will not meet to participate in the program.

Collaborative Law offers a solution that is quick, protects the children, and preserves a cooperative relationship between divorced/separated adults.

The key is to have these conversations immediately with ex-spouses and lawyers. That may be challenging within the traditional adversarial law process.

If you are struggling to make payments to your ex-spouse and/or children, here’s what you do:

  • Contact the other parent/former spouse and his/her lawyer to give notice of the situation
  • The notice should only come after you have exhausted all other options for including government and other financial assistance and deferrals.
  • Create a spreadsheet outlining the essentials of your budget, exactly how much you pay, and how your new income would be divided.
  • You need to justify that you do not have sufficient funds to make the support payments
  • Show your entire safety net and its limits IE. savings accounts, personal loans, credit opportunities, government aid.
  • Consider making good-faith partial payments

Couples who choose the Collaborative Law process have already established the cooperative template, the communication lines, and yes, the trust, to achieve informal but essential agreements during an unexpected crisis like COVID-19 which continues to test us all.

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