In the wake of the growing Covid-19 pandemic, many Americans are facing concerns over whether they will be laid off or terminated from their employment and how they will meet their financial obligations.
For families with child or spousal support obligations, there is not a financial institution to contact and negotiate repayment. Most will wonder if there is an exception to pay their support obligation in times of natural disaster. Unfortunately, so long as a court order remains in place and has not been suspended, the paying spouse (“obligor”) must fulfill his or her obligation.
In the event the obligor does not fulfill his or her obligation, the party owed the support (“obligee”) could file a contempt action. In a contempt, the obligee alleges the obligor is willfully violating the court order that established the child or spousal support obligation. If the obligee is successful in proving his or her case, a potential consequence the court could impose is a jail sentence. Because of this possible harsh consequence, if you find yourself laid off or suddenly unable to comply with your support obligation, you should take steps immediately to try to formulate an interim plan of attack to fulfill your obligation.
A practical first step would be to contact the obligee party and share as much as you can about the financial hardship. This is important as the obligee, who depends on this financial support, will likely be consumed with worry about making ends meet without the support. To provide assurances that you are tackling this dilemma, it is important to share information such as when you were terminated or laid off, if the termination is permanent or temporary, and if known, the time employment is anticipated to re-commence.
Other helpful information is what steps you are taking to continue fulfilling the obligation. For example, you may need some additional time to liquidate assets or to begin receiving unemployment benefits. A second step would be to negotiate with the obligee regarding what you can pay for the interim period.
Because any child support paid directly to the obligee constitutes as a gift under Iowa law, the best practice is to pay the obligee support through the clerk of court in the county in which the obligation was created or to pay the support through the Collection Services Center if it is child support.
It is important to keep a meticulous record of all communication with the obligee about how to handle the interim support. Please note that any agreement you informally negotiate with the obligee does not supersede your support order. The agreement, however, could serve as helpful evidence in the event of a contempt action.
Another option to discuss with an attorney is whether modifying your support obligation is right for your circumstances. Under Iowa law, to modify a child or spousal support obligation, you must be able to demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances has occurred that was not within the contemplation of the court at the time support was established. In addition, the change must be more or less permanent. Because it is unclear how long this pandemic will last, it would depend upon the circumstances of your lay off or termination as to whether you would qualify for a modification of support.
If you find yourself suddenly unable to fulfill your financial commitment, the primary thing to keep in mind is staying ahead of the issue as much as possible and consulting with an attorney regarding your options.