What do you do if you lose your job and can’t afford your child support? You probably don’t have a thousand dollars or more to pay a lawyer to help you. Instead, here are a few self-help tips for how to reduce your child support.
I frequently get calls from people who need assistance reducing their child support. But the Catch-22 for these potential clients is this: the very lack of money that causes them to need a lawyer also makes it impossible for them to afford to hire one. The good news is that Michigan’s system is set up for some child support payors to exercise self-help.
Periodic Child Support Reviews
Your child support order can be reviewed periodically to make sure it is still appropriate based on your income, your co-parent’s income, and the number of overnights each of you have with your child. Different counties do this more or less often, but it usually happens ever 2-3 years. Don’t ignore the child support questionnaire when you receive it. Your answers could trigger a child support reduction.
Request for Child Support Review
If you lose your job, become disabled, or otherwise run short on income, you don’t have to wait until a periodic review comes up. There are forms available at the Friend of the Court office in the county where your case was filed that will allow you to request a child support review. To qualify, though, you need to demonstrate that there has been a significant change in your financial circumstances. So when you head off to the local courthouse, make sure you bring a few things with you:
- Updated Photo ID – The Friend of the Court will want to update your address and telephone number, and often require a Photo ID to access details about your case.
- Current Uniform Child Support Order (UCSO) – Your most recent UCSO will have the case number, the judge assigned, your co-parent’s contact information, and other important details you will need to complete the request form.
- Proof of income change – This could be a termination letter, Application for unemployment benefits, or anything else that shows that you are no longer earning what you used to.
- Proof of present income – If you are earning any kind of income, including unemployment benefits, reduced salary, disability benefits or social security insurance (SSI), bring your most recent check stub or a confirmation of benefits with you. This will show how much you are actually making.
Remember that the Friend of the Court staff can give you the form, but are not allowed to give you legal advice. You’ll need to fill it out on your own. Bring copies of everything you think you may need to make your case.
Motion for Installment Payments
If your children are grown but you still owe back support, you can ask the court to allow you to pay in installments. This is a motion filed with the court clerk, not the Friend of the Court. Often an installment order allows you to pay a set amount (based on your income) for a set period of time (often two years) and then forgives the remaining balance owed.
Just like with the request to modify child support, you will need to be prepared to show why you can’t pay the entire monthly payment and demonstrate your current income. This motion may also include a disclosure of assets, including homes, cars, and other items of value. Know what they are worth before you file the motion.
Filing Fees and Fee Waivers
Most of these actions have a filing fee associated with them. You will need to have the money to pay the filing fee before the court will modify your child support or allow monthly installment payments.
However, if you are indigent (making very little money) you can request a fee waiver. As the court clerk for a fee waiver form before you file your motion. The form will request a disclosure of assets and obligations (like rent, utilities, and groceries). If the waiver is granted, the court will hear your motion without making you pay the filing fee.
Watch Out for Bench Warrants
If you have waited too long to request a child support modification, you may have built up a large arrearage (unpaid support amount). At a certain point, the court will issue a bench warrant for your arrest to make you come before the court and pay what you owe. If you think this might apply to you, don’t walk into the courthouse empty handed. Gather up as much cash as you can. That way, you can make a partial payment on the spot and clear up your record. Realistically, if you owe thousands of dollars in child support, it may be worth your while to spend some of that money to hire a lawyer to protect your rights and your freedom.
It is always a good idea to hire a lawyer to represent you if you can afford one. Lawyers can fight on your behalf and help demonstrate your income or lack thereof. But if you are headed to court to reduce your monthly bills, know that there are options out there that won’t cost you a lot of money. That way, you can hold on to that cash to support your children.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps people with divorce, custody, and child support problems. If you have a child-related court issue, contact Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, today to schedule a consultation.