Record-setting unemployment caused by the COVID-19 virus has created challenges for divorced and separated parents. The Georgia Department of Labor reports it processed more than three million applications for unemployment benefits from March through mid-July. As businesses struggle to recover from mandatory, government-ordered closures, the loss of employment for workers furloughed or laid off creates a hardship for parents ordered to pay child support as well as for the custodial parents expecting to receive it. The following are some suggestions for parents about how to address the challenge of meeting financial obligations during the pandemic.
Georgia law and the obligation it imposes on parents
Parents have a responsibility that is recognized and enforced under Georgia law to support, nurture and protect their children. This includes furnishing financial support even then the parents are divorced or separated and no longer living together.
When courts must decide child support issues, they begin by identifying one of parties as being the custodial parent, which is the parent with whom the children live for more than 50% of the time. The amount of child support payable by the noncustodial parent is calculated by first determining the gross income of each parent as derived from wages and other sources.
The official schedules used by judges and family law attorneys in Georgia to calculate the amount required each month to support children are based upon the total combined adjusted income of the parents and the number of children to be supported. The noncustodial parent pays a portion of that obligation according to what percentage their adjusted income is to the combined income of both parents.
Effect of income change caused by COVID-19
If you had to choose one word to describe the current economic conditions caused by COVID-19 in the U.S, it would have to be “uncertainty.” Businesses that reopened after being ordered to close or drastically curtail their operations due to the coronavirus outbreak may be forced to again shut their doors or limit their services again as infection rates continue to rise. Employees who have either lost their jobs or had their hours and income drastically cut may not be able to find a new job as easily as in better economic times.
Losing a job or being told that the hours available for you to work are being reduced creates a financial hardship during the best of times. When it happens in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, making up for the lost income may be impossible to do. If you find that you cannot meet your child support obligation, you need to take immediate action.
As a general rule, you cannot ask a court to modify a child support order within two years of a previous modification. However, the two-year restriction may not apply if you prove there has been a substantial change in your income and financial status caused by circumstances beyond your control. According to guidelines offered by the Georgia Office of Child Support Enforcement, examples of situations that may cause a substantial change in your financial circumstances include:
Involuntary loss of employment.
A 25% or greater involuntary reduction in income.
Serious illness or injury affecting the ability of the person to return to work for at least one year.
An inability to meet your child support obligation due to the closure of your place of employment or because your employer cut its hours of operation may qualify to seek modification of your child support obligation. You may also qualify for a modification if you fall victim to COVID-19 and the recovery time causes you to be out of work long enough to create a significant financial hardship.
Do not delay when COVID-19 affects your ability to pay child support
If you cannot pay child support because of unemployment or illness related to the coronavirus, a courtesy call to let the other parent know what has happened may avoid unnecessary conflict, but it does not relieve you of your legal duty to pay. You need to speak with an Atlanta family law attorney as soon as possible to find out what options may be available to you.
Bear in mind that a court may not retroactively modify a child support order, so waiting to file with the court means that unpaid child support will continue to accrue against you. A judge may only modify the support order from the date on which your petition is filed with the court. It cannot go back to the date that your employment stopped or that your financial situation changed, so you should contact an attorney as soon as you realize you cannot meet your support obligation.