BY MADDY O’CALLAGHAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Rising unemployment and job insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic are creating complications for parents in the child support system.
Child support orders are flexible, but only with an agreement between parents or by a court decision, according to Elizabeth Bransdorfer, the chair of the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Human Services has announced that stimulus payments to noncustodial parents who owe child support will now go to the custodial parent.
That’s a requirement of the new federal program, the department said.
Bransdorfer, a Grand Rapids attorney, said, ““The first thing to remember is that all court orders need to be obeyed until they are changed.Courts want parents to agree, so that should always be a first step.”
According to John Nevin, the communications director at the Michigan Supreme Court, the state had 811,980 child support cases as of 2018.
Nevin said that the best thing a parent can do if he or she cannot pay support is to communicate the problem to the other parent and then communicate it to the Friend of the Court.
The Friend of the Court is an arm of the justice system that helps judges with “custody, parenting time and child support issues and assists parents in resolving disputes,” according to michiganlegalhelp.org.
Bransdorfer said communication between parents is an important first step. “Listen to their response and think about what is best for your child.”
She said that although many families can take that first step without a lawyer, it’s important to get legal advice before an agreement is written into an order and submitted to a judge for approval.
According to Bransdorfer, most child support payers have money withheld from their paychecks to cover their obligations. If a parent’s work hours are reduced during the pandemic, the amount withheld will be capped at 50% by federal law.
Another major problem is when a parent obligated to pay support loses his or her job or gets a pay cut. Bransdorfer said that if it’s unfair to expect a parent to pay full support, courts are willing to to reduce or suspend it.
“Courts may want to ease up on enforcement, but they can’t unless the recipient parent agrees,” Bransdorfer said.
In some cases a parent needs an increase in support, especially if child care costs rise because schools are closed.
Because court buildings are closed during the pandemic, filing a motion to change the support amount must be done by mail.
Courts are not issuing bench warrants for parents who fail to pay because they had to close their offices during the pandemic, but will do so once they open again.
Both Bransdorfer and Nevin said the best way to avoid that situation is to communicate with the Friend of the Court.
“Rarely will the court or Friend of the Court try to take punitive or coercive action against a person who is acting in good faith to do his or her best to pay support,” Nevin said.
Bransdorfer said there’s no way to know how reduced child support will affect families, but many will have a significant loss of income that means some bills will go unpaid.
“Communities are doing what they can to help make up for missed school lunches and food pantries are setting up processes to distribute food while social distancing,” Bransdorfer said. “Many families will need to rely on their extended family, friends and available community resources.”
Bransdorfer said families should explore the relief available under the federal CARES Act, as well as expanded unemployment benefits.
If a parent cannot afford a lawyer to help with the process, Bransdorfer recommends that they try their county website under “courts” or use www.michiganlegalhelp.com.