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It's About Time This Issue Surfaced
The economic downturn has had a dramatic impact on CS payments. This story
finally addresses some of the issues.
Amid layoffs, child support pacts fraying
Stressed-out parents ask family court for help, relief
By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff | April 13, 2009
A Massachusetts family court system that is strained during the best of
times and taxed with implementing new child-support guidelines faces another
challenge: divorced parents seeking relief from - or enforcement of -
support arrangements as their financial and employment situations
Although the probate court system, which has jurisdiction over child-support
cases, does not keep statistics on modification petitions, judges and
lawyers within the system say such filings have increased noticeably in
recent months as the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed have swollen.
Layoffs, cutbacks, and battered investment portfolios have affected
custodial and noncustodial parents on all ends of the socioeconomic
spectrum, along with tens of thousands of Massachusetts children.
Nationally, the picture is just as grim, according to a survey released last
month by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. The 1,600-member group
reports a 39 percent increase in the number of divorced spouses seeking
changes to child-support arrangements in a tight job market and deepening
"From a day-to-day perspective, we've definite ly seen an uptick," said
Essex County Probate Judge Amy Blake, who practiced domestic relations law
for 15 years before her appointment to the bench last July. Although no
single factor explains the increase, Blake added, the economic downturn
clearly plays a role.
The chief justice of the Probate and Family Court, Paula Carey, concurs,
noting that contempt citations have risen sharply in recent months as more
litigants have fallen behind on their obligations, whether employed or not.
Carey is particularly concerned about those who represent themselves in
court, either because they can't afford an attorney or because they believe
they can be their own best advocate.
"Many don't understand that if they lose their jobs, they need to come back
right away and get [the divorce agreement] modified," said Carey. Otherwise,
she said, they're already in trouble because child-support modifications are
not retroactive to the date a job was lost or a similar change in financial
Carey chaired a 12-member task force that reviewed the state guidelines over
a two-year period beginning in October 2006. Under federal law, states must
update their guidelines, which apply to married and nonmarried parents
alike, every four years.
Spelled out in the new guidelines are a recognition that healthcare coverage
is vitally important to children's welfare and a commitment to streamlining
the process by which adjustments are made. The guidelines establish minimum
payments, set at $80 a month, but do not cap them at the high end.
The revamped guidelines already face a stiff legal challenge, however,
another reflection of tough economic times. This afternoon, Massachusetts
Superior Court Judge Linda Giles is scheduled to hear a lawsuit filed by the
Boston-based nonprofit Fathers and Families. The group contends that the
guidelines unfairly burden noncustodial parents financially and were
unconstitutionally implemented by the courts, not the state Legislature.
According to the lawsuit, the new guidelines sometimes double or even triple
the support levels previously mandated, causing further stress on splintered
"We do the best we can to make sure that kids at least get the basics," said
Carey, defending the current system. "That's not always easy to do,
especially at lower income levels." But, she said, "All of us understand
that when someone loses a job, there's a tendency to crawl into a hole - and
they shouldn't. We want to help them."
Gayle Stone-Turesky, an attorney who worked on the task force, says the
group was particularly concerned with protecting lower-income families.
"Even before the economy went south," said Stone-Turesky, "these people were
According to many divorce lawyers, however, most cases going to court are
being brought by parents seeking lower payments because they've lost their
jobs or face foreclosure on their homes.
Those getting regular support "are grateful to be getting it," said attorney
Marylinne Rice. "We're seeing more cases where both sides can't afford" to
keep up financially. In the past, she adds, when someone lost his job, the
argument to the court would be, "He's fully employable." "That's gone by the
boards," she said, although courts usually require proof that a litigant has
applied for work on a regular basis.
Divorce attorney Fern Frolin estimates that calls to her office about
contempt and modification cases are running 25 percent above normal. She
likens today's economic downturn to the 1980s housing recession, when
divorcing couples were stuck with houses they could not sell.
"That was tough, but this year it's not just housing, it's everything," said
Frolin. One example, she says, is the small-business owner whose backlog of
accounts receivable - money owed to the company but uncollected - makes his
business appear healthy on paper, when in fact there's little available cash
to divide between parties. "You can't pay child support with receivables,"
she noted. "I've never seen that before."
For middle- and upper-income families, another financial pressure point is
investment vehicles like retirement accounts and college-tuition funds,
frequently regarded as communal property in divorce agreements. These funds,
normally expected to grow in value, are now being tapped for cash or
decimated by a sinking stock market, say observers like Boston attorney
Donald Tye. As a result, he says, many judges are adjusting court-ordered
private-school and college tuition payments to fall more in line with
state-college fees than with those charged by elite prep schools or Ivy
Kelley Bothe, a Wellesley psychotherapist who runs support groups for
divorced parents, says the emotional havoc being wreaked on families is
palpable. One woman in her group is a stay-at-home mother suddenly forced
into the job market to help support her children. Two fathers are business
owners who are simultaneously coping with a bad business cycle and
devastating personal loss. Another is facing foreclosure on his home. Where
children are involved, the anxieties grow even more pronounced.
"In any divorce, people worry about finances," said Bothe, "yet there's
often a shared goal to provide for kids in the way they're used to. But if
the income is suddenly compromised, parents wonder, How are we going to do
this and give our kids the lives they've had?"
Beverly attorney Edmund Greene has seen both sides of the child-support
issue, legal and personal. Greene, divorced four years ago with a 5-year old
daughter, is petitioning the court to reduce his $360 weekly support
payments by half. His private practice has dried up, says Greene, and fully
a third of his income comes from unemployment while he continues to look for
Meanwhile, Greene is helping other probate court litigants on a pro-bono
basis - including some who are fighting against proposed court-ordered cuts
in the child-support levels they receive. "These people can't navigate the
system by themselves," he says.
For one divorced father of four who requested anonymity because his case
hasn't been settled, the crumbling economy has had consequences beyond the
emotional and financial. His $1,400 weekly support payments, plus additional
expenses like health insurance and tuition, had been based on a court
judgment in 2007.
The man works for a realty business, and since the real estate market has
frozen, his income has plummeted. Earlier this year he fell $23,000 behind
in what he owed, including attorney's fees to his ex-wife's lawyer. With his
modification petition still pending, he was handcuffed in court and put in
jail for 30 days. A pretrial hearing on his case is scheduled for May.
"Of the 45 guys I was in jail with," he said, "12 to 14 were probate cases.
So I know I'm not alone."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at
Correction: Because of a reporting error, yesterday's Page 1 story about
modification petitions for child-support payments misidentified attorney
© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
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