What if I Can’t Work During Coronavirus and Can’t Pay Child or Spousal Support?

Many ex-spouses parents in Massachusetts are now out of work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. For many people in this situation, the reality of being unable to make spousal support or child support payments is likely setting in. Under different circumstances, a person who loses his or her job can petition the court for a modification of spousal support or child support. However, making such a modification request during the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be much more difficult. Given that large numbers of Massachusetts residents have been laid off because they work in businesses or industries that are deemed non-essential and that have closed as a result of coronavirus, many residents are seeking unemployment. Indeed, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents who are out of work are applying for unemployment benefits, yet the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) is experiencing delays as a result of the unprecedented number of requests.

The following information is designed to help you understand how unemployment or reduced hours typically affect child or spousal support payments, and the different ways these issues are being handled given the practical concerns associated with the coronavirus.

Petition to Modify an Existing Child Support or Spousal Support Order

Under normal circumstances, parents and ex-spouses still lose their jobs. As such, Massachusetts law has procedures in place for that party to ask the court to modify an existing child support or spousal support order, as long as the party did not intentionally lose his or her job simply to avoid making these payments. More specifically, the party who lost his or her job will need to file a Complaint for Modification in the appropriate Probate and Family Court, and that party will also need to file a Motion for Temporary Order to avoid owing back payments for child support or spousal maintenance.

Those procedures are the ones that parents should follow under normal circumstances. However, these are not normal circumstances. Due to the way in which the novel coronavirus spreads, courthouses in Massachusetts are implementing safe distancing practices that are in use across the state and in many parts of the country. What this shift in practices means for most family law matters is that, unless there is an emergency, a family law petition will not be heard until May 1, 2020 or after.

Modifications for Support Will be Docketed But Not Heard Until May 1, 2020 or Later

According to Standing Order 2-20, from March 18, 2020 until May 1, 2020, “the divisions of the Probate and Family Court shall operate subject to . . . temporary, emergency conditions.” In short, unless there is an emergency situation, a court will not hear a family law matter in person. In cases where it is practical and possible, the court may be able to conduct a virtual hearing through a videoconference system.

In general, however, parents who have lost their jobs should anticipate that a Massachusetts court will not hear a case for modifying an existing child support or alimony order until May 1, 2020 or later. A parent can still file a Complaint for Modification, and that “filing will be docketed,” but the court will not hear the case prior to May 1. Depending upon the county in which you file a modification, you may be able to have your petition heard virtually.

If you have a limited amount of money—even though it is less than your support obligation—it is important to continue attempting to make some form of payment, even if it is significantly less than your support obligation. The sooner you file your Complaint for Modification, the better—you will be able to cite your filing date in explaining why you have reduced the amount of support payments. Once courts reopen, your case can be heard, and you are likely to see a modification to your support obligation.

Contact a Massachusetts Family Law Attorney

Do you have questions about making support payments after losing your job as a result of Coronavirus? An experienced Massachusetts family law attorney can assist you. Contact the Law Office of Rachel M. Matos today for more information.