The effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continue to rattle the state of Texas. No doubt, the social distancing restrictions and economic uncertainty have weighed heavily on many Texans. Perhaps nowhere are those effects felt more strongly than by parents, who must safeguard not only their own health but also the health and wellbeing of their children.
Child and Spousal Support Basics
Texas law requires all parents to provide support for their children. Tex. Fam. Code § 151.001. Even after a divorce or separation, this support obligation continues until the child turns eighteen or leaves high school. While it is not required like child support, Texas courts may also order a party pay spousal support or maintenance (commonly thought of as alimony) to their formal spouse after a divorce.
Texas follows what might be considered a conservative or traditional view of child support obligations and has a strong desire to enforce child support orders so that children receive sufficient money to meet their needs. Texas courts are therefore likely to hold child support obligors (the parent ordered to pay child support) to the terms of the original order despite most life changes. Similarly, Texas law has a relatively high bar for modifying spousal maintenance and it is very difficult to alter a spousal support plan.
Furthermore, the consequences for failing to pay court-ordered obligations can be stiff. Automatic money judgments, asset freezes, and contempt of court (i.e. jail) are a few of the options available to those seeking to enforce a support plan. To learn more about ways in which courts attempt to collect unpaid support obligations, follow this link.
Changes in Circumstances Due to COVID-19
Whether they are dealing with a child support or spousal maintenance order, an obligor who seeks a modification must show a “material and substantial change” in his or her circumstances. Tex. Fam. Code § 156.401.
Even though many parents now find themselves with either reduced income or no income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether that qualifies as a “material and substantial change” to one’s circumstances may not be a foregone conclusion. While there is no clear precedent that addresses a global pandemic, past court decisions can still provide a hint of how current courts will react to changes in circumstances due to COVID-19. “Indirect” effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as reduced hours or unemployment due to downsizing, are typically deemed insufficient changes for a modification of a support order. Courts look at your past employment and your ability to work and earn income rather than just your present unemployment or part-time employment. Therefore, despite the present difficulties in finding employment, courts typically expect obligors to find a way to care for their children.
However, a serious illness is generally grounds for a modification of a support order. Accordingly, an obligor may have a strong argument for a modification when he or she is seriously debilitated as a result of a COVID-19 diagnosis. Therefore, if your change in employment or income is due to no longer having the physical ability to work or to work the same hours or position, this may be a sufficient change in circumstances for a modification.
How to Seek a Modification
Again, the court’s will look at each obligor’s circumstances on a case-by-case basis to determine whether there has been a material and substantial change in their circumstances. Therefore, while these general guidelines lay out how courts are likely to respond, it is best to speak with an attorney about your particular situation to get a better idea of whether you meet this threshold and should file a petition for modification.
Obligors may also reach out to the Texas Office of the Attorney General when faced with a change in income or employment to request a review and modification. Visit this website to see if you are eligible for a modification through the Attorney General’s Office. Depending on the obligor’s specific circumstances, getting into contact with the Attorney General’s Office sooner rather than later may make a significant difference in any later modifications due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic affects your family or your support obligations, please contact us to speak with one of our experienced lawyers today.