The COVID-19 pandemic has had vast economic effects worldwide. Across the United States, forced layoffs occurred in many sectors, including retail, restaurants, health care, and the entertainment and travel industries. Over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. This leaves many people with drastically altered financial situations. Congress acted quickly to extend emergency funding to help Americans who lost their jobs overnight. Child support agreements may have also been affected, but agreements can be modified during the pandemic.
Divorce Modifications and New Jersey Law
Modifications to a divorce agreement exist because circumstances can always change. Even the most experienced family law professionals cannot predict the future, although they can do their best to plan for it. A divorce settlement can include agreements covering all types of legal matters, including alimony, business division, child custody, child support, parenting time, and relocation. All agreements are subject to modification under the right circumstances.
Because modifying pre-established agreements directly affect peoples’ lives and finances, the party wishing to make changes must ask a judge to grant them relief by filing a motion with the court. In New Jersey, the court considers major life events or financial changes when granting child support modification requests, including serious illness or injury, job loss, incarceration, an increase in the cost of living, loss of residence, increase in income, and changes to federal income tax law.
Burden of Proof
New Jersey law dictates that the party seeking the modification must prove to the court that they experienced changed circumstances. Legally speaking, changed circumstances are defined as permanent, substantial, and unanticipated. The parent seeking to modify a child support agreement must bring proof that supports the criteria. If a worker was temporarily laid off because of the pandemic and is expecting to be rehired at some point, a judge will likely deny a modification request.
However, if the changed circumstances are deemed truly permanent, substantial, and unanticipated, then the other parent will have to make a case information statement, which shows their current financial information. At this point, the judge will review all the factors that were taken into consideration for the initial child support orders, such as:
- The needs of the child
- All sources of income and assets for both parents
- All reasonable debts and liabilities of both parents
- The standard of living and financial situation of both parents
- The age and health of the child and both parents
- Each parent’s earning ability, including their education, training, skills, work experience, and custodial responsibilities
- Other factors deemed relevant by the court
It is likely that the economic consequences of COVID-19 will continue to be felt long after stores reopen, and schools are back in session. After a brief stock market rally, reality has sunk in with investors that many of those who lost their jobs will not recover anytime soon. Some family law experts anticipate that family court judges will realize how grim the unemployment numbers are and be more understanding when it comes to modifying agreements.
Do Unemployment Benefits Count as Income?
Congress passed the federal CARES Act to expand unemployment insurance benefits and coverage to the many workers affected by the pandemic, including those traditionally not eligible, such as independent contractors and self-employed workers. State unemployment agencies have been overwhelmed by the number of people scrambling to get some form of relief. If a worker received unemployment benefits, it is considered income. This means that the money is taxable and will be considered by the judge as counting toward child support.
How Do I File a Motion for Modification?
When seeking modification to a child support agreement, clients must ask the court to grant their request by filing a motion and submit a copy of the original court order, a copy of prior case information statements, current case information statements, supporting affidavits, and briefs for the case. The more thorough the financial documentation is, the clearer the case will be for the judge.
New Jersey Courts Closed During Pandemic
As part of statewide precautions taken to reduce the spread of Coronavirus, Governor Murphy closed the state court system for in-person appearances. However, it is still possible to send a petition for modification by mail. Until the courts are reconvened, no conferences to review petitions will be scheduled, but it is still important to file for modification as soon as possible.
The courts will need to resolve matters that were already on the calendar when they were closed down, so there will be significant delays as they work through the backlog of cases that were cancelled at the start of the pandemic. Expect that petitions to modify child support will not be heard until the court has finished with the cases that were scheduled before the shutdown.
According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, there has been a noticeable increase in inquiries for both divorce and modifications to child support agreements since the beginning of the pandemic. This means that the number of new cases needing to be heard by the court is even higher than it would be under normal circumstances without delays.
Communication is Key
While waiting to hear about a petition for modification, do not stop sending child support payments as this could leave an ex-spouse feeling frustrated, angry, and less likely to want to work things out. Keep in mind that an ex-spouse may need the support to cover major expenses related to childcare. Additionally, enforcement proceedings could be initiated if one fails to uphold their obligations for child support.
Instead, be sure to communicate about any changes in financial circumstances either directly or through an attorney. Some divorce agreements require to do so within a certain amount of time. Any payments not made will continue to accrue until the point in time when the agreement is modified. By being upfront, clients can keep their ex-spouse in the loop and avoid misunderstandings.
Burlington County Child Support Lawyers at Burnham Douglass Help Clients Modify Child Support Agreements.
If your financial circumstances have drastically changed during the pandemic, you may need to modify your child support agreement. Consult with a skilled Burlington County child support lawyer at Burnham Douglass about filing a motion for modification. For a free consultation, call 856-512-1461 today or complete our online contact form. From our offices in Marlton and Somers Point, New Jersey, we proudly represent clients throughout South Jersey, including those in Atlantic County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cumberland County, Gloucester County, Mercer County, Ocean County and Salem County.