What if I Can’t Pay Child Support During the Government Shutdown?

There are few absolutes in the world of divorce, but the unbending nature of the obligation to make court-ordered child support and spousal maintenance payments is one of them. The failure to do so can have calamitous consequences, including the possibility of jail time, a requirement to pay your ex-spouse’s attorney’s fees, garnishment of future pay and liens on assets, and revocation of your right to travel out of the country.

If you are one of the many who is experiencing a loss of income due to the government shutdown and you have support obligations, what are your options?

First, the worst thing to do is simply stop paying. You will begin amassing arrearages, which will accumulate interest at 12% APR. In addition, it makes it impossible for your ex-spouse to plan how to meet the financial needs of the children who are, after all, your children, too.

Instead, if you have decent communication with your ex-spouse, explore whether the two of you can work together to agree on a payment plan through which you will pay what you can, while deferring part of your payments until your income resumes. If you come to an agreement, work with an attorney to memorialize it in an agreed order, signed by the court. This is important, because it is the only way to officially relieve you of your responsibilities. An email exchange or mere oral agreement will not change your obligation.

If you and your spouse are unable to cooperatively work things out, have your attorney contact your ex-spouse’s attorney, or meet jointly with a mediator to work out a temporary fix which best addresses the needs of all those involved.

If it becomes clear that you will be without income for a significant period, consult an attorney about the need to modify your support obligation and the process for doing this. It is important that you not put off initiating this process for too long, since getting a reduction extending back retroactively prior to the date on which the request for modification was filed with the court is extremely unlikely.

This government shutdown is causing suffering to many people. But with a careful and thoughtful process, you can minimize the pain both to yourself and to those to whom you owe an obligation of support.