How to Modify Child Support During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Learn about the COVID-19 related financial assistance programs and how to pay or modify child support during the outbreak.

By , Attorney (UC Law San Francisco)

April 10, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the U.S.. Most states have issued shelter-in-place or stay home orders to help flatten the curve of this virus. Roughly 316 million Americans have been urged to stay home, except to meet essential needs, like buying food and medicine. States have also ordered nonessential businesses to shut down for a period of time.

For many small businesses, these temporary closures have already caused devastating financial losses, and millions of Americans are now out of work. MSNBC reports that over 16 million Americans filed unemployment claims in the last three weeks.

Divorced or separated parents may be especially worried about providing financial support to their children through this pandemic. How can unemployed parents pay child support? Where can you turn for help while courts are closed?

Continue reading for information on how to get financial assistance and resolve child support issues during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Federal Relief

The CARES Act, Stimulus Checks, and Child Support

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES act), which is a $2 trillion stimulus package to provide financial relief to businesses and individuals dealing with the COVID-19 economic fallout. Americans will receive stimulus checks based on annual income: up to $1,200 per person, $2,400 for couples, and $500 per child under 17. You can see how much you'll receive using Nolo's online stimulus calculator.

If you received your 2018 or 2019 tax return via direct deposit, then you'll get your stimulus payment the same way. If not, you should receive a paper check. Check the IRS website for more information.

It's unclear if the stimulus payment should be counted as income available for support, since it's a one-time benefit and probably won't increase your income enough to affect your child support payment. States have their own guidelines about what counts as income for child support. If you have questions about this, contact a local attorney for advice.

Parents that are behind on child support may not get a stimulus payment. Under the Treasury Offset Program, state child support agencies report parents who fail to pay child support to the Treasury Department so it can take federal tax returns and other payments to offset the overdue support.

If you're on the Treasury Offset list for unpaid child support, your coronavirus stimulus payment will be intercepted and reduced by the amount you owe. To find out if you're on the Treasury Offset list, contact the IRS at 1-800-304-3107.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act

In March President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which requires certain public employers and employers with less than 500 employees to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to any full-time employee who:

  • has COVID-19 or is quarantined
  • has COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking medical treatment
  • must care for a family member who has COVID-19 or is quarantined, or
  • must care for a child whose school has closed because of COVID-19.

Check the U.S. Department of Labor website for more information.

State Relief

Many states are also providing residents with COVID-19 related relief. Search for details on your state's government website.

New York and California—two of the hardest hit states—have created COVID-19 hub portals. From the New York State home page you can find links to information on COVID-19 testing, financial assistance, rent/mortgage relief, and paid sick leave. California's COVID-19 page contains similar information.

Unemployment Insurance and School Closures

If you've been financially affected by COVID-19 in California, New York, and many other states, you may be eligible for state unemployment insurance (UI) or paid family leave. Use the U.S. Department of Labor's interactive map to find your state's labor department and links to unemployment applications.

Usually when you resign from a job, you can't apply for unemployment benefits, but some states are making exceptions for parents of children who attend schools that are closed due to COVID-19.

In California, if your child's school is closed, and you have to miss work to take care of your child(ren), you may qualify for UI benefits. Eligibility considerations include if you have no other child care options and can't continue working your normal hours remotely. Use the state's calculator to see what your UI benefit might be.

Eviction Bans

California issued a moratorium on residential evictions for tenants who can't pay rent because of COVID-19 related hardships. New York has implemented a 90-day moratorium on evictions for residential and commercial tenants.

Many states have passed similar laws—Nolo is tracking COVID-19 related tenant protections by state.

Relief from Financial Institutions

Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, US Bank, Wells Fargo and nearly 200 state-chartered banks, credit unions, and servicers are providing relief for California homeowners/consumers who can't pay their mortgages and other bills as a result of the financial impact of COVID-19.

Contact your lender to see if you qualify for relief in your state. You may be eligible for:

  • a 90-day grace period for mortgage payments and related fees/charges
  • no new foreclosures for 60 days, and/or
  • no credit score changes for accessing relief.

Additional Information About Your Legal Rights's COVID-19 hub page has up-to-date information about paid sick leave, medical leave, unemployment insurance, family leave, bankruptcy, and more, including:

Paying or Modifying Child Support During the COVID-19 Crisis

If you've suffered financial losses due to COVID-19, see if you qualify for financial assistance. If you receive benefits and/or you can defer your rent or mortgage payments for three months, you might be able to pay child support.

If you qualify for UI benefits, let the unemployment office know about your child support order—they may deduct the child support payments from your unemployment wages. And if you're able to work safely and/or remotely, you can search online for a new job.

If you simply can't afford child support don't just stop making payments, because you'll start to accrue arrears and could be subject to contempt of court, jail time, and other enforcement actions.

You must pay until a judge changes your child support order. There are two ways to do this—you can ask your ex and/or a court to modify child support, or you can contact a local child support agency for help.

Ask Your Child's Other Parent or a Court to Modify Support

Start by asking your child's other parent to agree to modify child support. You can ask a judge to turn your agreement into an new order. Because of COVID-19, family courts are temporarily closed except for emergency matters, like restraining orders. Check your local court website for information on how to modify child support during these closures.

If you can't agree, you'll need to file a motion to modify child support with your local court. In some counties, you can still file motions by leaving them in an outdoor drop box. Your court might schedule a telephonic hearing. If not, you'll have to wait until your court reopens to have your request heard.

You should be prepared to show that you've been looking for work. Print your emails to potential employers and copies of any applications you've sent. You'll also have to submit information about your income, expenses, assets, and debts so a judge can recalculate child support.

Although each state has its own guidelines for calculating and modifying child support, courts generally consider each parent's income and time spent with the child. Judges will review tax returns or recent paystubs to find income. But in many states, courts may count other items as income, including:

  • unemployment benefits
  • veterans' benefits
  • military pensions, and
  • interest income from savings or investment accounts.

Contact Your Local Child Support Agency

If you need immediate assistance, contact your local child support agency. The U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement provides links to local offices in all 50 states and D.C..

Although these offices are closed, they may be available to take calls and more. For example, California Child Support Services created an online case service platform, called "customer connect," so parents can contact a case worker.

If you can't pay child support due to the physical or financial effects of COVID-19, your local California agency can help you:

  • request a "review and adjustment," with the necessary paperwork, or
  • stipulate (agree) with your ex to change your child support order.

"With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, California Child Support Services realizes the impact this is likely to have on case participants. We know that for some of you, the need for financial support for your children will continue or increase. Paying parents may be experiencing the financial hardship of lost wages and worrying about the penalties for missed payments. . . please reach out to your caseworker – California Child Support Services continues to work hard to ensure business moves forward even if local offices are closed."

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