April 8, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors
As I said here, the federal stimulus plan to combat the economic ravages of the COVID-19 virus contains an insidious exception. Everyone who earns under $75,000 per year will receive a check from Washington in the amount of $1,200 - everyone, that is, except non-custodial parents who’ve fallen behind on the child support payments.
Yes, if you’ve stiffed the government on your student loans, you still get a check. The same is true if you’ve refused to pay income taxes. No matter, you still get a check. But if you’re too poor to pay your child support, you get nothing.
As I pointed out, that is nothing but punitive. It accomplishes nothing except to punish parents (about 90% of them fathers). It sends not a sou to kids. And of course it diminishes the impact of the stimulus. If handing money to individuals helps the economy, and it does (although to what extent I can’t say), then withholding it from poor parents serves only to make the stimulus less effective.
And of course the parents this affects are overwhelmingly poor. The Office of Child Support Enforcement has for many years (at least since 2006) reported that those who don’t pay child support are the poorest of the poor. So keeping them from receiving the checks looks to be doubly mean-spirited.
But last time, I neglected to mention another obvious impact of the draconian limitations place on economic activity due to the virus. However many non-custodial parents were behind on their child support before the lockdown, there will soon be very, very many more. Countless child support obligors have been furloughed, laid off or fired. Countless more will be before the economic impact of the lockdown runs its course. That means that millions of parents will find themselves unable to make their payments and fall behind. And in due course, they’ll begin to accumulate arrears and the arrears will accumulate interest and fees.
Now, we all know that, for those parents, the inability to pay is not their fault. They didn’t invent this disease and no one asked them if they wanted the economy to shut down. But they’ve still lost their ability to earn and won’t have the money to hire lawyers to request downward modifications in court. Plus, the courts aren’t able to process cases as quickly as they could when hearings were being held in person.
That all adds up to an urgent necessity. States must establish quick, easy and free processes through which obligor parents can request and receive downward modifications of their child support orders. My thought is that a notarized affidavit from the parent’s employer stating that the person is no longer working due to the virus and the lockdown should be sufficient to cancel the obligation for at least three months, at which point another affidavit would be required to extend the cancellation. I understand that some people will still be able to make their payments even though they’re temporarily not working. In those cases, hearings should be held after the lockdown to ascertain whether the payments could have been made and, if so, the missing payments could be made up.
But whatever the precise specifics, this is an emergency and states should treat it as such. The purely punitive approach to child support obligors has been a flawed policy from its inception. Now is not the time to make a bad policy vastly worse.