Child Support Doesn’t Go Away When Your Job Does

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A down economy doesn’t spare anyone, not even Anne Heche.

After the announcement by ABC (DIS) that Men in Trees will not be returning to the small screen next season, the show’s star says that she can no longer afford to pay the $14,798 in child and spousal support she owes her ex-husband Coley Laffoon each month.

Since losing her job, Heche, 38, wrote in court papers, "I am continuing to look for work, but I have no offers pending and the impending strike by the Screen Actors Guild reduces my prospects for work even further."  On May 14, a judge gave her a temporary break by saying she didn't have to pay her next support payment. But she will have to provide updated income and expense information before a more definite decision can be made.

In addition to the support, Heche has stated that she can’t afford to pay the private school tuition for her son, Homer, 6; the mortgage on her house in Canada; the rent on her Los Angeles home, and her car expenses.  She wrote, "Since January 18, 2008, I have been unemployed and had no income from employment except for one very short-term contract for a movie role for which I received a total of $65,00, approximately the amount I received for one episode of 'Men in Trees'.  I do receive some residuals from previous acting work. However, the amounts are nominal and are offset by recurring business expenses that must be paid whether or not I am working."

The good news from the experts is that Heche seems to be approaching the situation in the right way.  According to Bart Rescnicoff, a family law attorney in Great Neck, NY, if there has been a significant change in income, a parent can seek a reduction in their child support payments.  However, it is important to note that the job loss must have occurred through no fault of the parent.  “If a judge finds that a job loss was intentional, particularly if they did it because they no longer wanted to make their payments, they will not give you a break,” says Rescincoff.

It is also very important that the parent show that they are doing everything in their power to find new employment.  Gary Port, an attorney in Floral Park, NY says, “The parent must keep a job search journal. If the court feels that the job search is a sham, the parent will not be relieved from the original child support order.”

The ultimate decision as to whether or not child support can be modified after a layoff occurs lies with the judge.  But, Rescincoff says if the situation is genuine, the judge will usually relent and revise the payments.  The breakdown of payments differs state to state and case by case but in parents are expected to pay a percentage of their income minus social security, non-refundable business expenses, and taxes.  In New York, a non-custodial parent is generally expected to pay 17% for one child, 25% for two, 29% for three, 31% for four and 35% for five and up. 

With the economy in a recessionary state, and companies like Bear Stearns (JPM) laying off people at a rapid rate, this situation is a reality for many people and one that, Rescincoff says it is important to handle it wisely.  Family court allows people to represent themselves but it may be worthwhile to get legal assistance.  Lawyers often know different ways and words to get their clients all that they are entitled to.  Also, despite the situation it is critical not to miss payments or simply give up.  Port says, “Failure to pay under the order could result in a finding of contempt in court, punishable up to ninety days [in New York].”

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