This Week’s Blog by Sarah E. Murray and Nicole M. DiGiose, Westport and Greenwich lawyers at Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie LLC.
The coronavirus pandemic and resulting measures to stem its spread have caused record unemployment numbers in the United States. While the full economic impact is not yet known, people who live and work in New York City and Fairfield County, two of the harder hit places in the tri-state area, have already begun to feel the effects with respect to job loss and loss of income. For those who have an alimony and/or child support obligation pursuant to a Connecticut Divorce Judgment, the natural question after losing a job, whether due to COVID-19 or otherwise, is: what impact will the job loss or reduction of income have on my obligation to pay alimony and/or child support?
Can I Modify My Alimony and/or Child Support Obligation if I Become Unemployed Because of COVID-19?
Connecticut General Statutes Section 46b-86(a) provides that alimony and/or child support obligations may be modified. Alimony may be modified “[u]nless and to the extent that the decree precludes modification.” So, unless your Divorce Agreement or Court Decision states that alimony is non-modifiable, you have the option of modifying your alimony obligation based on the loss of your employment.
In order to obtain a Court Order modifying alimony and/or child support, the party seeking the modification must prove that there has been a substantial change in circumstances. In determining whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances, a Court will compare the circumstances at the time of the last Court Order with the circumstances at the time that a party seeks a modification of that Order. Typically, a job loss in and of itself is considered to be a substantial change in circumstances. In these unprecedented times, many people are losing their jobs as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic; so, you will not be the only person making claims in a Connecticut Court that you lost your job due to COVID-19.
I Lost My Job Due to COVID-19, but I Am Receiving a Severance: Can I Still Modify?
If you receive severance payments for a period of time that are the same or substantially the same as the income received when employed, the receipt of that severance income means, in the eyes of the Court, that there has not yet been a substantial change in circumstances.
When Can I File a Motion to Modify?
Every situation is unique, but generally the appropriate time to file such a Motion is toward the end of the severance payment term, assuming that you have not found a job before that time or, if you have found a job, your income at your new employment is now substantially less.
Is My Ability to File a Motion to Modify in Court Affected by COVID-19?
Under Connecticut law, a person requesting a modification may request that the Court Order relief retroactive to the date that the Motion to Modify was personally served on the other party. The party filing the Motion to Modify must file the Motion with the Court, have a Hearing date assigned by the Court Clerk’s office, and then serve the Motion to Modify on the opposing party. The earliest date that the moving party can request for retroactivity purposes is the date of personal service on the opposing party.
As of the time of writing this article, the Courts in Connecticut are open with limited hours and are only permitting individuals to enter the building under certain circumstances, none of which include filing a Motion to Modify in person. Notwithstanding that fact, Motions may still be filed by mail or by e-filing; so, you can still file the Motion to Modify with the Court. Once you receive the assigned Hearing date from the Clerk’s office, the Motion can be served on the other party.
Because of the pandemic and resulting effects on the Connecticut Court system, the timing for receiving assigned Hearing dates on Motions to Modify that have been filed has been delayed, meaning that the date of personal service on the other party will also likely be delayed. Family lawyers in Connecticut have been seeking clarification from the Judicial Branch regarding whether temporary changes to the rules will be permitted so that there is some other standard for retroactivity, other than personal service on the opposing party, in order to address this issue. As of the time of writing this article, there has not yet been a solution presented to this problem, but the fact that there are discussions about this issue signifies that there is no harm in filing a Motion to Modify now (if appropriate to do so) and, in fact, there may be a benefit to doing so in order to preserve retroactivity.
What Documentation Should I Gather Regarding My Modification Case?
You can expect that one of the inquiries at the hearing on your Motion will be what you have done and what you currently are doing to find employment. A Court will want to know that you have made and are making bona fide efforts to obtain employment at or near the level of your prior employment. Be sure to save all of your written communications regarding your employment search, as it could become evidence at a Hearing on a Motion to Modify. It is not difficult to imagine that those seeking jobs as a result of job loss due to COVID-19 will have difficulty finding new employment in the current economic climate and that they will encounter increased competition for positions, which will be useful information to present to a Court as part of a Hearing on a Motion to Modify.
I Was Furloughed as a Result of COVID-19: Can I Modify Alimony and/or Child Support?
Some people living in Fairfield County are not permanently losing their employment as a result of COVID-19, but may suffer a temporary loss of employment or a reduction in income. Even if this change of financial circumstances is temporary, it may be appropriate to file a Motion to Modify in order to seek retroactive modification of alimony and/or child support for the time period during which the payor (or recipient, as the case may be) was receiving less income.
Can I Stop Paying or Reduce My Alimony and/or Child Support Payments if I Lose My Job or am Furloughed?
A Court Order remains in place unless and until it is modified by a Court or by agreement between the parties. Ceasing or reducing alimony and/or child support payments without the Court’s prior permission may be viewed by the Court as “self-help.” Additionally, a payor who ceases or reduces alimony and/or child support payments may be subject to a Motion for Contempt. If you have lost your job or have been furloughed, it is a good idea to file a Motion to Modify now in order to preserve retroactivity. While the Motion is pending, it may be possible to work out an agreement as to how alimony and/or child support payments may be modified.
Could I be Held in Contempt if I Stop Making or Reduce my Alimony and/or Child Support Payments?
In order to prove contempt, the moving party must demonstrate to the Court, by clear and convincing evidence, that there has been a willful violation of a clear and unambiguous Court Order. Divorce Agreements and Court Decisions are Court Orders. The question of whether an Order is clear and unambiguous is for the Judge to decide. Assuming the Court Order is clear and unambiguous, the Judge will next decide if the cessation or reduction of alimony and/or child support was willful. In determining willfulness, a Court could look at why you lost your employment, what other sources of funds you had available to you to pay alimony, and what your job search efforts have been.
At Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie LLC, our attorneys have significant experience handling cases involving the modification of alimony and/or child support when a client has lost his or her employment. We can consult with clients to shed light on whether a potential alimony and/or child support modification case is viable. Losing your job can be one of the most stressful events in your life. Our attorneys at Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie LLC are available to discuss your options with you and can provide you with a plan going forward with respect to your alimony and/or child support obligation, which may include filing a Motion to Modify and negotiating and drafting an agreement with the other side. It is our goal to give you peace of mind during these difficult times.