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The Texas economy has taken a significant hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. For parents who are subject to an order for child support under Texas law, this could be a particularly troubling time. The economic downturn has brought enormous job losses, affecting many parents’ ability to pay child support while also creating an even greater need for support. Texas law allows a parent who is obligated to pay support (the “obligor”) to petition a court to modify the amount of child support they must pay. The parent who receives the support (the “obligee”) can agree to a modification, or they can contest it in court. The obligee can enforce the child support obligation by petitioning the court or seeking the help of the Texas Attorney General (AG). Court closures across the state are affecting people’s ability both to modify and enforce support. Parents in the Houston area should be aware of their rights and the limits imposed by the current crisis.
The amount of child support an obligor must pay is based on two factors, starting with the obligor’s “net resources.” Texas law defines this to include all income from wages and salary, self-employment income, investment income like interest and dividends, rental income after deduction of expenses, and other sources. The list of other sources of income includes severance pay and unemployment compensation. This is relevant given the skyrocketing number of unemployment claims in Texas.
The second factor is the number of minor children involved in the case. State law establishes guideline amounts as a percentage of the obligor’s monthly net resources:
These percentages are applied to the obligor’s net resources up to a certain amount. That amount was initially set by statute, and is periodically adjusted by the AG. For 2020, the amount is $9,200. This is the net amount of monthly income, after deduction of federal income, Medicare, and Social Security taxes. Monthly gross income of $12,300.57 yields $9,200 in net income.
All issues relating to minor children must be addressed in a divorce proceeding. This includes establishing support, determining custody, and setting a visitation schedule. If the parents have never been married to one another, there are two ways to establish a child support obligation:
The most common methods of enforcing a child support obligation in Texas are similar to the methods of establishing support mentioned above. A parent can file a motion to enforce in the court that heard the original divorce or SAPCR. They can also request assistance from the AG. Since most child support payments go through a central disbursement unit operated by the AG, it can initiate enforcement proceedings on its own. Failure to pay child support can result in additional financial obligations, fines, or even jail time.
The question that is likely to be on many Texas parents’ minds right now is whether they can modify the amount of their child support obligation. An obligor who is out of a job due to the coronavirus pandemic is surely worried about keeping up with child support payments. Until a court signs an order modifying the child support obligation, however, they must still make payments as required. The inability to pay due to loss of a job is a defense they can raise in an enforcement case, not a reason to modify child support payments on their own.
Texas law states that a court can modify a child support order in two situations:
Both the courts in Texas and the AG’s office have been operating on reduced schedules since mid-March 2020. A joint statement issued by the Harris County Family Courts on March 12 states that any case not deemed “essential” is postponed until further notice. Courts have discretion to determine whether a particular matter is “essential” or not, but the statement only identifies matters involving domestic violence, habeas corpus petitions for children, and similar matters as “essential.” If a court is able to hear a motion to establish, enforce, or modify child support, it will most likely conduct the hearing remotely through videoconferencing.
The AG’s Child Support Division has also announced that it is handling matters “virtually” for the time being. The agency has established a virtual platform to address questions about child support, including enforcement. It claims that it is not experiencing delays in processing payments through the disbursement unit.
Board-certified family law attorney Stacey Valdez represents clients in the greater Houston, Texas area who are going through profoundly difficult ordeals like divorce and child custody disputes. Our clients and their families are the top priority for our team at Stacey Valdez & Associates. We are committed to advocating for our clients’ rights and interests with tireless advocacy, dignity, and compassion. Please contact us online, or give us a call today at (713) 294-7072 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case. Your first meeting with us is free in most situations.