Many couples, even ones whose divorce is relatively amicable, may have a moment (or ten) where they briefly wonder, How can I get even with my soon-to-be ex-spouse? For some, though, it is more than a passing thought. It becomes a way of life to see how much trouble they can throw into the life of the one person causing them so much hurt and anger.
One popular way parents try to sabotage one another is by toying with their child support payments. A lot of parents who are placed under a child support obligation by the court view that money as a payday to their former husband or wife, and that is just too hard a pill to swallow for some. The paying parent may choose to find creative ways to fulfill that obligation that causes as much difficulty as possible for the other parent. (Maybe you recall hearing about the estranged father who made the news after dumping his final child support payment in front of his ex-wife’s home in the form of 80,000 pennies?)
Another way is through underemployment. And while the pennies trick was childish but technically legal, purposeful underemployment can land you in hot water.
What is underemployment?
Obligated parents may try to intentionally reduce their income in order to reduce their child support payments. Voluntarily leaving your position to take a lower paying job, or getting an employer to agree to pay wages under the table, are examples of underemployment. It means you are earning below your income potential.
The legal consequence of voluntary underemployment
Keep in mind who child support is really meant to help – your child. Even if you view the check you write each month as going to your former spouse’s extravagant lifestyle, at the end of the day the goal is to help financially support your child. If your ex goes shopping and buys a new set of golf clubs or a Gucci purse, it’s irrelevant to whether you have been ordered by the court to contribute to keeping a roof over your child’s head and the refrigerator well stocked.
Child support is intended to also help pay for other expenses that are reasonable, necessary and in your child’s best interest while growing up, such as:
- Work-related childcare
- Extraordinary educational needs
- Transportation between your homes
If your income has been reduced, you are still under the same legal obligation to continue paying to support your child. The only time that changes is if you petition for and obtain a modification of your court order. If the judge decides that your income has been reduced in an act of bad faith, you may likely find that the judge will base your child support obligation on your potential income instead of your actual earnings. That also means if you have intentionally sabotaged your income in order to escape payment, you may face contempt of court.
The everyday consequences of voluntary income reduction
Even if the custodial parent has plenty of money to raise your child without your contribution, knowing that you were not willing to pitch in will cause your child to feel animosity or worse – indifference over sharing his or her life with you as the years go by. Take the man from the story above, for example. While he presumably paid his child support as ordered over the years, his last act of financial support showed his outrage over having to support his daughter, even if that was not his intention. While choosing to reduce your income may not be the same exact situation, it sends the same strong message to your child that your comfort is more important than helping to provide for him or her.
Behavior that displays your disapproval or objection for helping your child may cause you to not only miss out on spending time with your child during adulthood, but the rift you cause may also mean missing out on a relationship with future grandchildren.
What if I lose my job?
Involuntary income reduction is not the same as choosing to make less in order to avoid child support payments. Having your hours reduced, getting fired, or being laid off is a very different circumstance. You can take a lower paying job if you cannot find one that pays the same or better, and you can even ask for a modification of child support because of a financial hardship that is not of your own making. This can lead to a temporary reduction of your child support obligation.
What if my child does not need as much financial support?
You can also petition to modify your order if your child’s needs change significantly, too. For example, if part of your child support is designated for day care, but your child no longer requires day care or after-school care, you may be able to reduce your support payments.
You may also be able to seek a child support reduction if you start covering your child under your own healthcare, or if your child leaves a pricey private school to attend a public school instead. These types of changes could be grounds for an order modification.
Finally, you may be able to modify court-ordered child support if you become the primary residential parent. Note that child support and child custody are two very separate issues, and changes in one do not necessarily mean you can seek changes for the other. However, if custody changes significantly, you can seek to change the support order to be more in line with the new custody plan.
The Charlotte child support attorneys at Epperson Law Group, PLLC know the frustration that comes with enforcing a child support obligation, regardless if you are the parent ordered to pay or receive the support. If you need advice on proceeding with a modification or enforcement action schedule your private consultation in our Charlotte, Boone, Concord, or Weddington offices by calling 704-321-0031, or we invite you to reach out to us through our contact page.