Lately I have been seeing and hearing about a lot of cases where a parent who pays child support has a sudden loss of income due to an involuntary termination, job lay off, cannot work because of a medical issue, etc., and as a result, is unable to afford their monthly child support obligation. Some of these people believe that if they are not bringing any income in, then they don’t have to pay their child support obligation and then just stop paying. These people are then shocked when they receive papers in the mail ordering them to appear in court for a contempt proceeding for failure to pay child support. How can they be in trouble for not paying child support when they no longer have the income to pay it, right? Wrong!
If you stop paying child support per the terms of your child support order, domestic relations of your county will automatically begin contempt proceedings against you. The first step is usually to order you to appear at a contempt conference/hearing where you have to show why you shouldn’t be held in contempt of your child support order.
Once this first contempt proceeding is scheduled, people often believe that they just have to appear at the proceeding, show that their income was reduced, and the court will reduce/terminate their child support obligation and drop the contempt. Unfortunately, those people would be wrong again. The contempt proceedings are generally about the contempt only. Even if it is clear that your income has been reduced, the conference officer who is handling the contempt proceeding will not reduce your child support at that time; they will only address the contempt issue. Since you failed to pay the support as ordered, you could be found in contempt and ordered to purge yourself of contempt by continuing to pay the full support order, making a lump sum payment towards the child support arrears, pay the payee’s attorney’s fees if he/she hired an attorney for the contempt proceeding, or worse.
So what SHOULD you do you do if you have a sudden loss of income and can no longer afford to pay your child support obligation? You must immediately file a petition for modification of the child support order in the county your child support order is through, and schedule a conference/hearing date to determine whether the support should be reduced. That way if domestic relations does schedule a contempt proceeding, the contempt and modification proceedings can probably be heard together, and you will be able to produce evidence of your reduced income, request that your support be lowered all the way back to the date you filed, and greatly help your chances of not being held in contempt for failure to pay child support.
Of course, it is not guaranteed that child support will be lowered because you lost your job, such as if you quit on purpose or were fired for cause. Anyone who finds them in this situation should seek the advice of a competent family law attorney immediately so they can be advised according to their particular circumstances.