Each state and the federal government have enacted laws to aid in the enforcement of a parent's court-ordered obligation to pay child support. Only a modification of the original support order can reduce or end the support obligation. A parent who is unable to pay child support in the amount specified in a support order must make an application to the court for modification. Unemployment, whether voluntary or involuntary, does not suspend a parent's obligations under a child support order.
A parent's obligation to pay child support may be contained in a judgment or decree of divorce or separation, or in a court order in a support proceeding. Subsequent changes in employment, income or the needs of the child may form the basis for a modification of the original support order, but only if the parent seeking the modification makes a formal written request to the court that is known as a motion. Absent a motion for modification, the original court order and the obligation to pay child support remain unchanged.
Loss of Income
A loss of income due to unemployment, illness, injury or other circumstance does not automatically release a parent from the obligation to pay court-ordered child support. It makes no difference whether the reduction or loss of income is caused by the voluntary actions of the paying parent or by circumstances beyond his control. If the parent who is obligated to pay child support has income from unemployment benefits, most states allow the amount of the child support to be deducted from those benefits.
A court can review a person's education, work history, health, age and other factors to determine whether he is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed in order to purposely avoid complying with his court-ordered child support obligation. If this is found to be the case, a judge may impute the person's income based on the amount he could earn in light of his earnings history if he were employed full-time. A court will not impute earnings if the person is legitimately unemployable.
Grounds for Modification
A person who is unemployed or whose income has decreased must make a motion asking the court to reduce the child support obligation. Support arrears continue to accrue up to the date the modification motion is made. Most states do not allow a court to relieve a person from support arrears accruing prior to the filing of the modification motion. A person seeking a modification of child support must prove a substantial, unanticipated change of circumstances. A judge is unlikely to grant a modification request based on a voluntary resignation from employment or reduction of hours worked.