March 6 was the Emergency Declaration from the Governor. March 19 was the stay at home order. In the meantime, since March 15, a record 1.5 million Pennsylvanians have applied for unemployment. That’s an average of 300,000 per week in contrast to roughly 10,000 a week before the crisis hit. With the statewide shut down, the local Domestic Relations offices, which manage child and spousal support have also gone to basic staff only, which means the system is working in slow motion. Early on we checked to see what payors who had lost their jobs could do to file for modification of support based on unemployment or pay reductions. This is important because under prevailing law, you can’t get a modification for a time period when you did not file for one. Needless to say, the collection system is still functioning, but if you aren’t getting paid or your compensation has been reduced, you need to file for a reduction. Until you are granted relief, the account will continue to charge monthly as if no change occurred.
The author does not have his own child support account. But I am told that if a payor goes to the PA Child Support Program website, the first page of the menu will look like this:
I Would Like To…
- Make a Support Payment
- Make an Employer Withholding Payment
- Request a Direct Deposit /Update my Direct Deposit Information
- Begin/Resume a Request for Support Services
- Access Additional Information on How to Apply for Support
- Estimate My Child Support Amount
- Contact My Closest DRS
- Print Child Support Forms
- View Frequently Asked Questions
- Access Useful Links
- View Child Support Terms
If you click on Begin/Resume a Request for Support Services, we are told the menu will allow you to file for modification remotely. Yes, you could file a hard copy petition. That might even be preferable. But, when that petition gets accepted and acted upon is a guess at best. A successful remote filing should create a record of the fact that you acted promptly. In the end, it would not surprise us that courts will “stretch” the law to provide that if you can show the date you were laid off, furloughed or cut back, that will become the retroactive date for a modification. Nevertheless, that’s taking a chance because the law on the books today says filing is the only relevant date.
Realize a couple of other things as well. Courts in Southeastern Pennsylvania appear to be extending the shutdown to May 31. This means that everything filed since March 18 is going to be backlogged. In a phone call with the court today, I was advised that a custody conference that would typically take 5-6 weeks to occur from date of filing may now see a delay of 20 weeks. If 500,000 Pennsylvanians have had their jobs affected (I include wage modifications) and half of those adults have a support obligation that could signal 100,000 or more support modification petitions. The system is not ready for this kind of volume and bear in mind that criminal court calendars and true emergencies are already stacking up and they will get priority over more routine claims.
The website says that nothing is official until a pleading is accepted by Domestic Relations. Again, that may be technically accurate but suffice to say the more diligent you are in showing your attentiveness to complying with the prevailing law, the more likely your retro-activity will apply. It is chancy to simply assume that your layoff notice or reduced paycheck will be sufficient by itself.
Another tidbit you may have read about. The checks from the government now floating into bank accounts are subject to attachment for overdue child support. So you may be getting more OR less than the amount you think. There has been controversy about this. In many states any judgment creditor can try to intercept money put into your bank account. In Pennsylvania the law is much more restrictive. However, if you owe a pile of back child support, don’t be surprised if some or all of your government grant is taken. In a world where the goal is to get money into the system, many people are outraged by this. Yet, those people seem to forget that they were effectively borrowing from support payees when the full support was not remitted. The money is flowing back into the economy. It just happens to be flowing through to your former spouse’s account instead of to yours.