Out Of Work, Parents Struggle To Keep Up On Child Support

Jim Feeney lost his job in January. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Jim Feeney lost his job in January. He petitioned the court to pay less child support but has to wait until July for a trial. Until then he's required to pay the same amount as when he had a job. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

When someone loses a job, the bills don’t stop coming. Mortgage or rent, car payments, health insurance and, for non-custodial parents, child support. That’s why more parents are asking the courts to lower or increase their child support.

Paula Carey is the chief justice of the Probate and Family Court and oversees judges who make decisions about child-support agreements.

"My judges are telling me that, yes, the modification complaints have gone up and yes the complaints for contempt have gone up," Carey said.

Modifications are when either side asks the court to increase or decrease the child support order. Contempts are when the non-custodial parent isn’t paying.

Carey says many judges are telling her it’s because of the economy. The Department of Revenue is seeing about an 8 percent rise in the number of requests for child support changes as compared with last year. Nationally, 39 percent of attorneys in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers are seeing an increase in modification requests.

But just asking the court to change the child support obligation because you lost your job isn’t always enough. Longtime family law attorney B.J. Krintzman of Newton says it’s a slow moving system that hasn’t changed with the fast decline in the economy.

"There’s a disinclination by the courts to give an instantaneous reduction in child support," Krintzman said. "Because, for instance, of a job loss — because you don’t know if the person is going to be reemployed within a few weeks or something."

But with a state unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, other lawyers say more judges are granting temporary relief immediately, because they know it’s unlikely someone will get a new job quickly. Another complication is that some custodial parents who’ve lost their jobs are also asking the courts to increase the amount they receive.

Judge Carey says budget cuts in the justice system are stressing family courts at a time when they are also implementing newly revised child-support guidelines.

"We are doing the best we can," she said. "We’ve got a hiring freeze in the trial court, and I think we are doing a pretty good job of trying to keep up with the work with a shortage of staff."

Typically, it takes six months from the time a non-custodial parent petitions the court to pay less because of a job loss to when the court makes a decision.

"And during those couple of months you can be going broke in a hurry," said Ned Holstein, president of Fathers and Families, a group that represents the majority of non-custodial parents: dads.

"Then when you get the hearing, typically the family court judges will not give you relief in the first hearing," he said. "They say, 'Well, how do we know this is not going to be long standing? You could get a job next week. You have assets you can pay it out of your assets. And so I’ll see you again in three more months.'”

And that’s exactly what happened to Jim Feeney, who lives on Cape Cod. He’s a father of four who was married 19 years and has been divorced for five. He’s required to pay $800 a week in child support and 65 percent of college expenses for two of his children. In January he lost his $83,000-a-year job in business development.

"First I filed for unemployment," Feeney recalled. "I filed for a complaint for modification from the court. And I filed for transitional assistance, welfare and food stamps. Because I had no income, I had no savings."

Feeney had to wait two and a half months for a hearing. Then the judge denied his request to temporarily lower his child support payments and scheduled a trial for July. After the hearing, Feeney spoke about his case at a restaurant across the street from the Bristol County Probate Courthouse in New Bedford.

"They charge penalties, interest — there are penalties to the state. There’s penalties that go to my ex-wife. There’s interest that goes to the state, there’s interest that goes to my ex-wife."

Feeney’s ex-wife doesn’t have a paid job and her lawyer argued in court that Feeney should sell his property on Martha’s Vineyard. But Feeney says he doesn’t own that land anymore.

"I can’t pay weekly based on the property on Martha’s Vineyard. Mrs. Feeny has the house in Norton, she has land in Norton that the court ordered me to deed over to her. She has more assets than I do!"

Feeney wife’s attorney declined to comment beyond what he said in court. When judges don’t give relief to non-custodial parents who are unemployed, it puts fathers in legal jeopardy, says Ned Holstein.

"Everybody is struggling, but someone who has a child-support order is the only person who's going to be put in jail because they can’t pay their debts," he says. "We’re talking about ways to work out their mortgage and credit card debt, but non-custodial parents are the only ones whose debts will put them in jail."

If a judge grants relief, it is retroactive to the day papers were filed with the court. The Department of Revenue says the number of contempt orders for not paying child support are not on the rise this year, so at this point they don’t expect to be adding many new names to the so-called “deadbeat dads” list because of the economy.

This program aired on May 4, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.


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