In my divorce arrangement 13 years ago, I agreed to pay for 100% of the cost of my daughter’s college education. Times have changed and money is tight now. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to live up to that obligation. I’m concerned it will put me in financial ruins.
What can I do? I agreed to that 13 years ago but my situation has changed. Will the courts expect me to uphold that agreement even when it was that long ago? I can’t predict the future.
Most child support orders are modifiable for that reason – we cannot predict the future, and parents’ income and parenting time rights, on which support is customarily based, change, certainly over 13 years. It is possible to have a non-modifiable order, however this can happen in older orders, like yours, that refer to support as “family support” or order what is actually a series of property settlement payouts simply used for support. You should read your order thoroughly for any language that suggests it is non-modifiable; an attorney consultation is ideal. Assuming your order is modifiable, here are some suggestions:
Motion to Reduce Child Support: If you cannot pay the amount, consider filing a motion to reduce it. The standards and procedural requirements vary by state, but, in general, parents who genuinely cannot afford to pay (e.g., have lost a job) will receive a reduced amount or a long-term payment plan. Contact an attorney in your area for information about the rules applicable to you.
Three Year Support Review: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 requires states receiving federal assistance to review child support orders every three years. In Michigan, where I practice, support payers and payees have a “one time pass” every three years to ask the Friend of the Court to review their current child support order. All they need to do is send a letter to the Friend of the Court to request it. Contact the court or child support administrator for your case to find out how your jurisdiction conducts PRWORA reviews and whether they can be used in lieu of or in addition to and as support for your trial. Be cautious, however, because incremental differences may not be enough to modify the current order (in Michigan, we need at least 15% deviation), and you could end up paying more support if your ex-spouse’s income has deceased more than yours. That does not sound to be the case for you; if anything, your ex’s income has increased because her new husband (presumably) pays some of the debt she had been paying.
Pay the Right Person: Most states require payors to pay support through the state, along with a processing fee. Some parents pay their children’s custodial parent directly to avoid paying the fee. That is a mistake. Unless and until your order states that you can pay your ex directly, you must pay child support through the state. In most states, the money you pay directly to the other parent will be treated as a “gift,” not child support. Since the appropriate entity (the state) did not receive the money, you would still owe child support. You could even end up paying the full amount twice. If you would rather pay the parent directly, contact your attorney to learn what the local requirements are for opting out of the state payment system. Most states do allow you to opt out, but generally you cannot have arrears and both parents must agree and/or the court must determine a revised child support order is appropriate. In Michigan, for example, the payor and the payee must agree, the payor must have no arrears, and there must be no threats of domestic violence or signs of “strong-arm” bargaining between the parties before the court will consider an opt-out. When you are allowed to pay the other parent directly, if ever, be sure to make the payments by check so that you have a record of when you wrote the check and whether it cleared your checking account.
Settlement Discussion: Explain your financial predicament to your ex, sincerely and in depth. Ask for a settlement at an amount you can afford to pay, and explain that any other higher amount will force you into bankruptcy (if true). Support obligations are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, and your ex may be left with a bankrupt payor who is not paying anything at all if you do not settle at a reasonable amount. Be sure to reduce any settlement to a written order, with the court’s approval and abiding all court rules and statutes for entering settlement agreements. Keep in mind that I am a Michigan attorney and cannot give you detailed advice about the laws in Pennsylvania. You should not rely on this answer as establishing an attorney-client relationship, and you should contact an attorney in your area for additional information or legal representation. Cordell & Cordell, P.C. does have offices in Pennsylvania.
Jennifer M. Paine is an Associate Attorney in the Detroit, Michigan office of Cordell & Cordell P.C. She is licensed to practice in Michigan, and has been admitted pro hac vice in Illinois, Ohio, and the United States Court of Federal Claims. Ms. Paine received her BA in English and Mathematics from Albion College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She received her Juris Doctorate from MSU College of Law and graduated Summa Cum Laude.