By Wade Fickler and Sarah Scherer
Unemployment has spiked in recent days as a result of COVID-19-related furloughs, layoffs and business closures, and the numbers are expected to dramatically increase in the coming weeks and months.
As incomes of parents who are ordered to pay child support decrease, child support agencies will see sharp increases in requests for modifications of child support orders.
Legislators can expect many custodial parents will soon experience economic hardship as a result of noncustodial parents’ sudden inability to pay child support because they lost their income or are themselves incapacitated by COVID-19. At the same time, noncustodial parents will have concerns about falling out of compliance with orders that were set based on income they no longer have and the compounding effect of penalties for nonpayment.
Financial security is not the only issue. Questions and concerns about court-ordered access and visitation are also on the table. School and child care closures and other protective measures have pushed many families, child support agencies and family courts to grapple with a host of compliance-related questions.
States are responding in a variety of ways.
- Texas is allowing for virtual negotiations of child support cases.
- Oregon is informing individuals who have been laid off due to closures and quarantines to request a modification of their child support orders, noting that child support payments will still be withheld from unemployment benefits.
- Florida has offered alternative options for handling child support cases without visiting the local child support offices, which are temporarily closed to public.
Compounding the situation, many local child support agencies are themselves hamstrung by social isolation orders. In some areas, court systems are shut down or operating with limited capacity. Many child support offices are also physically closed with staff working from home in jurisdictions with the capacity and technology to support remote work. Hearings are being delayed and in states where child support modifications currently require court action these delays will contribute to accrual of debt by newly unemployed noncustodial parents.
Legislators and state child support agencies can use the experiences of the Great Recession to forecast the likely impact of this crisis on families with child support orders, but with some new wrinkles. Quarantines and other social distancing measures present new challenges for all of us.
With COVID-19, legislators likely will experience a surge in contact from constituents about disrupted payments, delayed court hearings and intercepted federal stimulus payments. The federal CARES Act provides for immediate direct payments of various amounts to most families earning less than $75,000 ($112,500 for head of household and $150,000 married). Noncustodial parents who have fallen behind on child support payments will have their relief checks intercepted. The Texas Attorney General’s Office interprets the child support provision in the CARES Act as a mandate to intercept COVID-19 relief payments for noncustodial parents owing more than $500 in past due child support.
Seven Things Legislators Can Do Now
Understanding the legal and financial consequences of this crisis and being ready to help ameliorate their effects will help stabilize families with child support orders. NCSL has identified seven actions legislators could take to address COVID-19’s snowballing effect on child support, custody, visitation and family economic security.
- Ask your state child support agency how you can help keep the wheels turning.
- Consider the effectiveness of financial penalties for noncompliance during this crisis.
- Consider the full effect of delayed unemployment benefits and intercepted child support payments.
- Expedite processing of unemployment benefits and extend the length of time recipients can receive those benefits.
- Allow virtual negotiations to address the backlog of child support cases in the court systems.
- Permit those ordered to pay child support to file motions to modify child support by mail or email.
- Deem child support matters essential.
Visit NCSL’s COVID-19 Human Services page for explanations and examples of these seven actions.
Wade Fickler is group director for NCSL’s Children and Families program. Sarah Scherer is a policy associate on the Children and Families team.
For questions about how states are addressing these and other child support matters, email Sarah.