The economic impact of the coronavirus crisis is not something we anticipated having to endure when agreements were made, or orders put in place, requiring a parent or spouse to make payments for the support of their child(ren) or spouse. With unemployment rates skyrocketing, “stay-at-home” orders in place, and no definite timeframe as to when this crisis may end, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the state of our economy. Many of those subject to support orders don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from, or when they will be employed again with any sort of job security.
These circumstances pose a myriad of problems, outside of the general concern regarding the lack of financial security. First, those who are ordered to make support payments, may have been laid off, furloughed, or taken a pay decrease due to the coronavirus crisis. The unemployment claims in North Carolina have reached almost 270,000; and payments take about two weeks to start. This means that those who have court ordered support obligations may be juggling these responsibilities on top of their regular monthly bills and household necessities for weeks, without any income.
As family law attorneys, we have faced the question time and again:
Will I be Found in Contempt if I am Unable to Maintain my Support Obligation During the COVID-19 Crisis?
In order to be found in contempt, a judge must find that the behavior in contravention of a court order is “willful.” If there is a reasonable justification for the behavior, or if the behavior is unavoidable, it is not considered a willful violation of the order. We are currently facing unprecedented issues, affecting the workforce and dampening employment opportunities. For those who are currently unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a contempt finding for nonpayment of support during this time is unlikely. However, this does not mean those subject to support orders should just pay nothing, and there are certainly exceptions to this generality.
Although times are tough, and unemployment for many was unforeseen, anyone subject to a support order should do what they can to pay some amount during this time. This may mean tapping into savings, breaking up payments, or reducing the amount you are paying. It may also require a re-evaluation of what is a necessity during this time. Are you continuing to pay for gym memberships? Subscriptions to apps or magazines? Meal delivery services? In order to reduce the chance of a finding of contempt, you should keep in mind that a child support or spousal support obligation is as much of a necessary monthly obligation as your power bill or water bill. You should take the same measures to ensure payment of support obligations as you do to keep your lights on.
Should I File for Contempt if I am not Receiving Regular Child/Spousal Support Payments During This Time?
Those who depend on Child or Spousal Support payments are being severely impacted by the sudden unemployment of those who have been ordered to provide them with such support. Unfortunately, the options available to mitigate this loss of monthly support are limited right now, as employment prospects have been all but eliminated by this COVID-19 pandemic, and unemployment benefits are in high demand and slow to be processed.
The pandemic does not relieve the payor from the support that is owed during this time; however, they may not be found in contempt if their non-payment is due to a sudden unemployment or reduction in pay due to the coronavirus. If the payor has an inability to pay according to their monthly obligation, their non-payment will not be considered willful, and they will not be found in contempt.
Additionally, the reality of the situation now is that even if a contempt motion is filed now, the courts will not hear it for several months, due to the reduced court operations during this time. It may be worth considering trying to work out a payment plan with the other party so that they can get caught up on their payments over a period of time. Having an attorney to facilitate these discussions can help facilitate an agreement.
If you are having difficulty paying your support obligations or if you are not receiving support during this time, call one of our experienced family law attorneys at Emblem Legal who can help you through this difficult time.