Many businesses, entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and all sorts of professionals who do not receive a regular salary have seen their income reduced drastically during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is especially the case in Southern California where film and television production has dropped dramatically and where we face some of the most severe lockdown restrictions in the country while at the same time deal with one of the worst Covid outbreaks in the country, both of which contribute to reduced income for many individuals throughout the region.
If you have a spousal support obligation to an ex-spouse, it can be particularly onerous to have to pay a monthly support check based on an income level you had prior to the pandemic, when that income may have dried up entirely and it is not clear when it is coming back and/or at what level. For example, if you earned an average of $500,000 a year from producing films prior to Covid, and were paying $6,000 a month in spousal support, it is obviously a good deal more difficult to pay that monthly check when you’re not bringing in any income.
Don’t Take the Law Into Your Own Hands
The good news is that relief may be available from the courts in the form of a modification to your spousal support obligation, but you cannot simply stop paying your spousal support on your own initiative without approval from the court. By taking the law into your own hands and terminating your spousal support payments without a court order, you could face high interest rates of 10% on your missed payments, and even be found to be in contempt of court, or at the very least look very bad in front of a judge who has the power to terminate or lower (or increase) your support obligation.
Obtaining a Modification of Spousal Support in the Courts
California does allow a party with a support obligation to obtain a modification from the court on the amount owed when there has been a significant change of circumstances since the original support order was made, such as a significant loss of income for the payor (that said, you will want to review your divorce judgment, potentially with your attorney, to determine whether the judgment is non-modifiable with respect to support). If a court determined you should pay $2,000 a month in support based on an annual salary of $100,000, and you are currently earning $0 a month, a court may well be open to lowering or terminating your support obligation, at least temporarily.
A modification of support proceeding can be litigated in much the same way as a divorce. Parties will fill out financial disclosures, they may conduct discovery on one another (which can include exchanges of documents, subpoenas, depositions, interrogatories, etc.), draft pleadings to the court on the issue of the modification, and then attend a hearing at which a judge will make a decision.
Pursuing a Modification Through Negotiation/Mediation
If that sounds expensive, it certainly can be, and so a much better place to start is to attempt to negotiate with the other party a modification of support in light of the reduced income. A negotiated agreement could include any number of provisions to reach a fair outcome on support, such as pledges to exchange updated financial information, increasing support as income is restored, and/or setting support at a percentage of the payer’s income rather than a fixed number. Parties can also work with a third-party mediator or private judge to reach an agreement on support as an alternative to the often expensive and drawn-out process of going to court.
Of course, an agreement requires the other party to sign on to the modification, so it is important to approach the subject as delicately as possible to foster an amicable agreement – simply telling your ex you’re not paying and they need to deal with it and sign on the dotted line is probably more likely to lead to a court battle than an efficient and quickly-obtained agreement.
That said, it is also important to not delay too long in pursuing your options, as courts will generally not retroactively modify a support amount prior to the time you file your action, even if you lost your income months before. You are encouraged to speak with a skilled family law professional early in the process to determine your best steps for reaching an efficient and optimal outcome in your modification action.
Guidance on Your California Family Law Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney
If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.