Do I Have to Pay Child Support When I Have No Income? Child Support During Coronavirus (COVID-19)

person walking on an empty parking lot

The strain of coronavirus known as COVID-19 has impacted nearly every American in some way or another. While some must worry about their health, nearly all of us are concerned about our livelihoods. 

The Wall Street Journal surveyed 57 economists recently who estimated that Americans will lose 14.4 million jobs in the coming months and the unemployment rate may reach 13% in June. We are not economists and we cannot predict the future, but we do understand the impact job loss and job uncertainty has on your ability to pay child support—now and in the future. 

Depending on your situation, your outlook may differ. We will take a look at three common scenarios and let you know the chief considerations of each:

  • You have lost your job and have a current child support order
  • You anticipate you will lose your job and have a current child support order
  • You are behind on your child support payments

Before we do, a reminder that California courts are updating their response to COVID-19 regularly. Emergency Rule 13, issued April 20, 2020, now allows you to start your child support or spousal support case even while courts are closed. In other words, your request for change will be effectively “backdated” when the court is able to hear your case. We will continue to update this page as new decisions are made. We will update this page as new decisions are made.

No Income and an Active Child Support Order

If you are unemployed or underemployed as a result of COVID-19, you are unfortunately in a tough spot. Currently, California courts are still accepting filings on new and active family law cases but most are not actively hearing cases. Emergency Rule 13 now allows you to start your child support or spousal support case even while courts are closed. This means you may file a request to modify your child support order, but you may not see relief until the courts reopen and make their way through a backlog of cases put on hold due to the coronavirus and filed while the courts have been out of session. 

Four considerations are especially important for Californians in this situation:

  • Your salary is not the only source of income for child support purposes. You may remember that when you originally established a child support order, you had to count income sources as diverse as dividends from bonds or stocks, rent, and benefits like health insurance. Unemployment insurance will be counted in the same way. If you do not make your child support payments, your unemployment checks—and any stimulus payments—may be garnished, which means that money from these checks will be withheld from you and routed to the other parent.
  • Your child support order stands until it is approved by the court. Even if your income has dropped dramatically, you are still responsible to pay the full amount of support from your current order until the court approves a modification. If you fail to make payments in full, you will owe interest on any unpaid balance at the rate of 10% per year.
  • Historically, the court will consider your earning potential, and it is too soon to see how COVID-19 will impact this stance. In other words, courts tend to look at your ability to earn—including your salary history—when calculating child support. This helps ensure children receive predictable support, whether you are unemployed temporarily or by choice. It is too soon to see if the coronavirus will lead to a change in the court’s stance, but any decision is likely on hold until the courts reopen. 
  • Informally changing your child support order is generally not a good idea. Remember, child support is the court’s order of what is in the best interest of your child. An informal agreement between parents, even in a crisis like COVID-19, is not enforceable, and you may end up owing what you did not pay, plus interest. It may also put you in the vulnerable position of contempt. 

A change in child support order is not retroactive, so if you lost your job, it is important that you file a request for modification promptly. Until the courts hear your case, however, it is critical that you continue to pay your child support order to the best of your ability. An attorney can help you determine what a modified child support order would look like, and many quality attorneys are still available to take clients. 

Anticipating a Loss of Income

If you have a current child support order and are concerned about losing your job (or losing hours on the job), now is the best time to understand your rights and responsibilities. We encourage you to review the section above and to be mindful of unnecessary expenditures so that you are able to keep up with your child support payment. If you anticipate a loss in hours or salary or even your job, you may wish to speak with an attorney to understand the process of seeking to modify a child support order and see what your responsibility might be. 

Again, with the courts closed and unavailable to hear motions to modify child support orders, you remain responsible for the terms of your current order. Falling behind on child support payments may make you vulnerable to interest charges, wage garnishments, and potentially being found in contempt of court. If the courts make a special order related to COVID-19, we will update this post promptly. 

Behind on Your Child Support Payments

If you are falling behind on your child support payments—due to the impact of COVID-19 or otherwise—it is critical that you get and stay caught up until the court issues a new order. Do not make these payments in cash. Instead, be sure to send a check or make a transfer—anything that ensures a paper trail.

Remember the purpose of child support in California is to fulfill your duty to financially support your child. In general, the courts do not look kindly on parents who fail to fulfill this obligation, no matter the reason. Delayed payments are subject to a 10% annual interest; your wages, unemployment, and stimulus checks may be garnished; and in a worst case scenario, you may be held in contempt of court. 

If you are unemployed or underemployed as a result of COVID-19, you should contact an attorney or the Department of Child Support Services immediately. The DCSS offices are closed, but they are available online and by telephone. 

Navigating Child Support During the Coronavirus

Child support orders can be challenging in the best of times. Establishing and maintaining a child support order in the wake of COVID-19 is especially difficult. If you find yourself uncertain about your ability to meet your child support in part or in full, you should speak with an attorney who can advise you about your rights and help you navigate a system that is mostly closed for business. This resource provides information for each county’s court and their response to COVID-19 (select your country from the left-hand column).

We will update this post if California or its counties release further guidance and as more information becomes available. This post has been recently updated to reflect the announcement of Emergency Rule 13. 

 As always, we encourage you to follow the CDC’s recommendations, abide by the shelter-in-place mandate to the best of your ability, and maintain your child support payments. If you need support and guidance, seek the advice of a trusted and experienced attorney. 

At Van Voorhis & Sosna, we know COVID-19 is a challenging time. We are prepared to help you navigate these questions and offer legal advice and representation based on integrity, trust, and understanding. Contact us today, or call 415-539-0422 to schedule a free legal consultation.

The content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information, and you should contact an attorney to obtain advice regarding your particular issues or problems. Use of and access to this website do not create an attorney-client relationship between Van Voorhis & Sosna and the reader.

Related Posts
  • Child Support and Divorce Updates Due to Coronavirus in California Read More