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Legal Matters: Unemployed parents must continue to pay child support

It may be the last thing on Mom’s and Dad’s minds when a newborn baby makes its first cry, but they are welcoming a new little legal obligation into their world.

Whether the parents are married, divorced or never married, they are legally required to support the children financially to age 18.

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If they live together, they can share the obligation or one parent can take financial responsibility. If they separate or divorce, the parent who does not have physical custody is usually ordered to pay child support to the parent who has custody.

The system is not perfect. Court records of child support enforcement actions may show noncustodial parents accused of having failed to pay support for months or even years. When support is not paid, the custodial parent may have to resort to child support enforcement agencies, and, depending on income, may have to file for public assistance.

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But it is not just a matter of contacting the local support agency, reporting the problem and receiving a check for the arrearage. Collecting child support from nonpaying parents can be a drawn-out legal process in the best of times.

All Maryland counties and Baltimore City have child support enforcement agencies that try to collect arrearages from the noncustodial parent. Agencies may go to court, report that Jack Jones has not paid, and get an order to compel him to pay. But Jack may ignore the order and wait for further enforcement actions.

Complicating factor: the current pandemic has left many people without jobs, permanently or temporarily. A child support payment obligation does not stop when a paying parent loses a job, regardless of whether the job loss was his fault, but the parent may not have the resources to keep payments current.

Parents who are unable to pay support can seek a court-ordered modification to try to protect themselves from the growing backlog of unpaid child support obligations. But a parent cannot just come to court and request a change because the payments have become a pain or he believes them to be unfair.

The family law article of the state code requires a parent petitioning for a change in support payments to prove there has been, “a material change in circumstances,” such as job loss or an accident that left a parent unable to work.

The Maryland judiciary has directed that unemployed parents must continue to pay child support as ordered, pending a modification. Parents who receive or owe child support can contact the Department of Human Services Call Center, 1-800-322-6347, for additional information.

Child support expenses do not stop in a pandemic. Children still eat, outgrow their clothing and may need supplies for virtual school.

But there are legal limits to a trial court’s authority to modify child support awards. A court cannot, for example, erase a non-custodial parent’s obligation without justifying circumstances. State appeals courts have held that to justify a reduction in child support payments, a parent’s change of circumstances “must be relevant to the level of support the child is actually receiving or entitled to receive.”

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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