Will Child Support Payments Stop Due To the CoronaVirus

Kenya N. Rahmaan

The CoronaVirus pandemic has left people around the world and in the US unable to work and, therefore, unable to pay their bills.  There have been several proposals by the US government and private companies in an attempt to assist citizens with monthly bills, as well as foreseeable debt, as we are asked (or ordered, based on who you ask) to self-quarantine. 

Source: Center for Disease Control

To help during this financial crisis, several leasing offices are offering rent free occupancy for the next few months to its tenants. While, according to Nathan Bomey (2020), many utilities, telecommunications companies and automakers are easing shutoffs and waiving late fees to accommodate consumers who might be struggling during the Coronavirus pandemic.  Every attempt made by these companies will undoubtedly ease future financial burdens on people if and when we begin to recover from this pandemic.

The Federal government is taking the idea of economic relief a step further in proposing actual cash being distributed to Americans to assist with the economic downturn.  Based on an article written by Josh Laderman and Daren Gregoria of NBC News (2020), the Treasury Department will ask Congress for $500 billion in direct payouts for taxpayers as part of a $1 trillion stimulus package.  If approved, the money will be sent to any taxpayer that meets the predetermined criteria, one of which will include family size. The indication that family size is a pre qualifier may mean that non-custodial parents will be excused from receiving the stimulus payment if a.) they do not have dependents living in their household, b.) they cannot claim their children as dependents on their income taxes or, c.) they have an open child support order in which they are named as the obligor. 

Because owing child support arrears can mean an automatic tax offset when non-custodial parents allegedly owe child support debt, any money sent through the stimulus program will, more than likely, be seized and applied to child support arrears. Depending on whether the child support arrears are owed to the custodial parent or to the government determines who receives the child support payment.  With so much at stake, surprisingly, no agency within the Federal government has addressed possible postponement or cancellation of child support payments while the country prepares for the outcome of the CoronaVirus pandemic. Meanwhile, late fees, interest rates on late child support payments (as high 10% some states) will continue to be charged. Local courts and child support agencies have been responding to the postponing court hearings or holding virtual child support appointments in an effort to avoid personal contact.  

Officials in Smith County, Texas have taken an extra step concerning a couple of non-custodial parents and other non-violent ‘offenders’ who were being detained behind bars.  This after a resident and advocate, Dalila Reynoso, complained about citizens being jailed for non-violent misdemeanor cases. According to Payton Weidman (2020), Reynoso says after the meeting she spoke with Sheriff Larry Smith about her request and he told her the people waiting for the pre-trial misdemeanor hearings would be let go as well as the child support cases.  While other counties within Texas and jurisdictionsaround the country remain silent about possible remedies during this pandemic, the release of these two lone parents offers little hope to those who are all too familiar with the punishments that are inflicted by the child support agencies when payments are not made on time and in full.  

Source: @BARWbamom (Twitter)

California seems to be the only state that has an agency willing to address payment options, or lack thereof, during this medical scare.  One parent reached out to the LA County Child Support Agency asking for information about his payments while he had ‘no income coming in until we can go back to work and is not receiving unemployment.  The caseworker suggested that he file for a modification by either applying online or by visiting the local courthouse. She, graciously, adds that the courthouse is closed, but he can request the modification when it opens.  Presumingly, when the courthouse reopens, he will be back to work and there will be no need for the modifications. However the late fees and interest, California charges 10% (http://thechildsupporthustle.com/how-much-did-your-state-receive-in-federal-incentive-money-for-operating-the-child-support-program-in-2018/), will still be charged during the layoff.

It is no secret that parents have the option to file for a downward modification when there is a change in their circumstances that will prohibit making full and on-time payments.  Advocates have regularly voiced problems that arise with the current modification process, however, child support officials have yet to offer any viable solutions to effectively address these pressing concerns.  First, the modification request can take a long time to complete. While some lucky people have reported completion within several months, others have filed complaints citing years of waiting for downward modifications they had requested due to illness, unemployment, and disability status. 

There are currently no guidelines that specify time limits on when a requested modification must be reviewed and decided by a child support official.  In the meantime, the non-custodial parent is still expected to make the full payments on time or face enforcement measures. There is a lack of accountability that should be in place to assist in maintaining time frames of modification filings so that officials might determine an appropriate amount of time a parent should expect to wait before a decision is made.  This leaves tens of thousands of parents in an indefinite waiting period while monthly child support payments continue to become due and arrears steadily accumulate. 

Secondly, there is no guarantee that the modification will be approved.  In some situations, the state relies on the custodial parent to make the decision on whether the child support amount should be decreased based on a change in circumstance.  

Source: Office of Child Support Enforcement

According to the Texas Attorney General, both parents must agree on the newly calculated child support amount and any other payment changes addressed. If the custodial parent does not agree, the case will be sent to court.  Considering that the country may soon be on a mandated quarantine, a modification hearing may not be heard in front of a judge for an undetermined amount of time. Because of this very important fact, the non-custodial parent can expect to face punishments, especially in Texas, where child support arrest roundups are regularly conducted when parents are ruled in contempt of court for allegedly failing to make on-time and in-full child support payments. 

Another problem is that the modification may be denied.  Modifications, as the name suggests, should apply to changes made to the child support order because changes were made to the financial status used to determine the initial child support payment amount.  Unfortunately, child support caseworkers and judges across the country do not consider this as the only criteria when deciding whether to grant a downward modification. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) (2017) set the precedent when it stated that,

if you’ve lost your job, your order will probably be decreased, but it depends on your overall income and some other factors.  The court or administrative officer makes the final decision.

Those other factors may include previous incomes, possible incomes based on your location and educational background, and what overtime or commissioned pay.  Not to mention, any biases that a parent may face based on any prejudices against non-residential parents as they navigate through the family court system, can and will be used against them in determining approval or denial of a modification request.  If any of these factors are considered, based on the approver, the modification can, and will be, denied. The back child support debt will be charged retroactively, which means that child support debt, or arrears, will accrue. Arrears cannot be waived or erased despite what reasons and proof of difficulties are provided by the non-residential parent.  This is thanks to The Bradley Amendment.

The Bradley Amendment is a 1986 amendment to Title IV of the Social Security Act which prohibits the retroactive modification of child support arrearages. (Douglas Reid Weimer).  In the past, there have been cases of officials denying a father who was in a coma and one who had been a prisoner of war when they requested debt forgiveness from child support arrears, (https://youtu.be/dv0KpADLlFY). While many advocates have demanded the repeal of the amendment based on these instances and more, the potential financial damage of the CoronaVirus is yet another reason why The Bradley Amendment should be immediately repealed.  Non-residential parents should not have to be forced to rely on the discretion and approval of custodial parents who may have spiteful intentions to say whether a modification should be granted. Just as importantly, they shouldn’t have to rely on government officials who have financial motives to determine whether they are granted relief from a lifetime of financial debt and or ruin.

It should be mentioned that California has released information concerning some solace for non-custodial parents during this attempt to financially sustain the economy.   Based on the California Child Support Services COVID-19 updates, effective March 17, 2020, automatic actions for Bank Levy and Driver’s License suspensions have been shut down.  Although the state has failed to list a halt suspension mandate for all business, occupational, professional, recreational, or notary public licenses, many non-custodial Californians can rest a little easier knowing that some of their essentials are protected during the mass shut-down.  Of course, since the other licenses are mostly related to generating revenue, California officials should release an amended statement, to include all licenses from being suspended during this difficult time to ensure that business owners retain their licenses during this financial crisis.

As the country and the world braces itself to combat and then, hopefully, recover from the CoronaVirus pandemic, government officials in the United States and around the world must consider how best to handle all child support situations.  This crisis is bringing light to many problems that plague the current child support system. It is extremely difficult for parents, especially those with low or no income, to be required to pay a specific amount of money each month for a child or suffer severe punishments.  Especially when that amount is unfairly decided by the government and when it is not required to be paid by both parents, equally. 

As with any crisis, this pandemic has the potential to offer a learning opportunity for the United States.  Not only to the unconstitutionality of the child support system, but to just how dangerous and irresponsible it is to limit, and in many cases eliminate, much needed social programs to our most vulnerable citizens.  It is important to note that according to the OCSE (2018), the majority (60%) of debtors with more than $100,000 in arrears had no reported income in the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH). Likewise, since the child support system is a welfare recovery program (https://youtu.be/sE5EnetBlnk), custodial parents who are still permitted to receive the limited public benefits, must assign all child support received over to the state. 

This is clearly detrimental to citizens, especially the children who the child support system is supposed to protect.  During this trying time, parents and citizens alike should take this time to contact our government officials and ask what they plan to do about the child support payments that will soon be due from parents who have zero income and the debt that will quickly accumulate because of the quarantine.  And while we are asking, we need to demand answers to how these officials plan to reform the child support and family court systems after the CoronaVirus pandemic recovery process begins and low/no income non-custodial parents are still required to make unreasonable child support payments. We need answers and a new beginning. 

References

Arthus, J. (2018, July 31). Do parents who owe the most child support debt have reported income? Office of Child Support Enforcement | ACF. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/css/ocsedatablog/2018/07/do-parents-who-owe-the-most-child-support-debt-have-reported-income

Bomey, N. (2020, March 16). How utility, phone and internet companies are giving consumers a break during coronavirus pandemic. USA TODAY. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/03/16/utility-cable-internet-phone-coronavirus-covid-19/5060084002/

Lederman, J., & Gregorian, D. (2020, March 18). Americans would get two checks under Treasury Department proposal. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/americans-would-get-two-checks-under-treasury-department-proposal-n1163016

Office of Attorney General of Texas. (n.d.). Support modification process. Liberty and justice for Texas | Office of the Attorney General. https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/child-support/paying-and-receiving-child-support/get-back-track/modify-child-support/support-modification-process

Office of Child Support Enforcement. (2017). Changing a child support order. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/programs/css/changing_a_child_support_order.pdf

State of California. (2020, March 17). COVID-19 Updates. CA Child Support Services. https://childsupport.ca.gov/covid-19-updates/

Weidman, P. (2020, March 18). Smith County takes steps to prevent COVID-19 from going through the judicial process. KYTX. https://www.cbs19.tv/article/news/smith-county-takes-steps-to-prevent-covid-19-from-going-through-the-judicial-process/501-ccebeb4e-581f-4050-80c2-a922b23815ef

Weimer, D. R. (n.d.). The Bradley amendment: prohibition against retroactive modification of child support arrears. Congressional Research Reports. https://congressionalresearch.com/RS20642/document.php?study=THE+BRADLEY+AMENDMENT+PROHIBITION+AGAINST+RETROACTIVE+MODIFICATION+OF+CHILD+SUPPORT+ARREARAGES