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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

More Parents Requesting Child Support Modifications in Down Economy

As parents across the country find themselves unable to meet their existing support obligations in the current economic climate, courts have faced a rush of child support modification requests. With national unemployment rates hovering around 10 percent, more people are being forced to take unpaid time off, having their hours cut or losing their jobs altogether.

With finances growing increasingly tight, some parents are finding it impossible to care for their children on the amount of support they receive each month. Other parents are finding it equally difficult to keep up with their support obligations on decreased or non-existent incomes. Applying for a child support modification is one way parents may be able to alleviate some of their financial stresses.

Do Not Stop Making Child Support Payments

Unilaterally decreasing the amount of child support paid each month or stopping payment altogether is one of the biggest mistakes parents who are required to pay child support can make.

Under Virginia law, the only way to legally change the amount of child support owed each month is by court order. Even if the parents reach an agreement together to change the amount of support, this agreement is not legally enforceable until a court has approved it.

Parents who stop paying support or pay less than they owe will begin accruing arrears and may be subject to other significant penalties, including wage garnishment, property liens, driver's license suspension, fines or even jail time. Unpaid child support payments do not go away and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Only a Court Can Change a Support Order

Parents who are unable to make their monthly support payments must submit a petition to the court for a modification of the child support order. Either parent can request the modification. The court may decide to increase the amount of support, decrease the amount or leave the amount unchanged.

In Virginia, a court will only grant a request for a modification if there has been a substantial change in circumstances in the parent's or child's condition since the current support order was entered.

Examples of substantial changes in circumstances include:
-New employment
-Job loss or reduced income
-Marriage or divorce of one of the parents
-Serious medical condition of a child or parent
-Birth of a new child

The parent requesting the child support modification has the burden of proving that there has been a substantial change in circumstances. If the parent is seeking a reduction in the amount of support he or she must pay, the parent also must fully disclose his or her financial situation to prove inability to pay. Additionally, the parent has the burden of showing that the inability to pay is not caused by a voluntary or negligent act.


In Virginia, the court has the power to impute income to a parent if the parent is underemployed or voluntarily unemployed. This means that the court can use a parent's former income rather than the current income to calculate support payments in certain situations. For example, if a parent voluntarily leaves a well-paying job without having a new job, the court may use the salary from the former position to determine the appropriate child support payment.

In the current economy though, many parents are losing well-paying jobs and being forced to take lower paying positions or even part-time work to keep a steady paycheck. Depending on the parent's profession or work experience, it can take six months or longer to find a new job, making it difficult for many to find comparable employment and income. Under state law, the court could consider this underemployment.

Before deciding whether to grant a modification, the court will consider all of the relevant factors and examine the impact of the modification on the child. Some judges are more understanding of the economy's impact on a parent's ability to find comparable employment and may be less inclined to impute income. However, this is not always the case.

How a Family Law Attorney Can Help

Before you submit a petition to modify a child support order, it is important you speak with an experienced family law attorney. The modification process can be frustrating for someone not familiar with the legal system or the specific requirements for making the request.

An attorney can review your family's specific circumstances and develop the best possible strategy for presenting your modification request. In some cases, the attorney may be able to negotiate a settlement with the other parent to modify the support amount without litigating the matter in court. While the agreement still will have to be approved by the court, a negotiated settlement will decrease the amount of time you will have to spend in front of a judge.

For more information on child support modifications, speak with an experienced family law attorney.


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