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Unemployment is everywhere across Pennsylvania at an unprecedented level, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Non-essential” business offices remain closed as our economy labors under life-support, leaving us all to wonder what happens next. Long-term financial planning is difficult or impossible. Many who have not already have been laid off are worried about whether they will have a job next month, or even next week. The latest statistics show that one in six Pennsylvanians have filed for Unemployment Compensation, and that number will continue to increase now that self-employed workers are also eligible to apply. Unemployment has touched all industries and income levels, and even those who previously considered themselves financially secure now find themselves tightening their belts.
Nobody predicted that a worldwide pandemic would practically shut down our economy, or that it would hit hard-working Pennsylvanians so severely in just about every industry. This leaves many worried that they will lose their jobs to the Coronavirus pandemic, required to pay alimony but unable to afford it, and wondering about the consequences for not paying and whether there is any recourse or relief. If your ex-spouse pays you alimony, you might be afraid of a double-whammy from losing both your job and your alimony payments.
If you are paying alimony, where you stand may depend on whether your obligation is part of an agreement you reached with your spouse to settle your divorce, or whether a judge ordered it after a trial. Alimony ordered by a judge is potentially modifiable and can even be terminated if circumstances have changed substantially. That can include loss of employment due to a layoff. If that is your situation, you may be permitted to ask the court to reduce your alimony obligation. Whether you could lower or terminate your alimony, if you lose your job, will depend on numerous factors such as how much your income has gone down, what your ex-spouse is earning, and other facts specific to each individual case.
If you and your spouse agreed to an amount of alimony, that could be another matter, entirely. Courts in Pennsylvania routinely hold that monthly alimony payments made under the terms of an agreement are not modifiable. Read your divorce agreement carefully. Many marriage settlement agreements drafted by an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney specifically state that alimony cannot be modified under any circumstances until it is scheduled to end. Agreements like that are treated as contracts under Pennsylvania divorce law, and a family court judge does not have the power to override them. That means that if you agreed to pay non-modifiable alimony, or if your agreement has provisions about when it can change that does not include this situation, you are still required to continue paying alimony in full and on time. There is no decision from the higher courts in Pennsylvania that provide for any exception due to lack of employment as a result of COVID-19. The best way to get out of trouble is often to avoid it in the first place, and so my advice is almost always going to be that if you can afford to pay the amount as ordered, you should continue to do so.
If it is genuinely impossible for you to meet your full alimony obligation, you still need to make a genuine, good-faith attempt to do so. It is far better to pay something regularly and on time, rather than to pay nothing. Judges who are called upon to make decide whether you have willfully chosen to abandon your obligation are more likely to cut you a break if you did your very best to keep faith with former spouse by prioritizing that obligation and sticking to the deal as much as possible without waiting to be told. Doing that also raises the likelihood of solutions based on compromise. A family law attorney can help you through this period – the earlier, the better – by discussing ways for you to stay in compliance, helping you minimize your liability for shorted payments, and by proposing compromises such as lowering your current payments in exchange for extending the duration of your obligation. Although it may seem strange to recommend paying an attorney when money is short, spending some money now to guide you the right direction can be your best investment to save plenty of money and aggravation down the line. Your attorney can help you identify solutions that help you address both the immediate and the long term issues, showing you options that you might not even have known were available to you. In this new and difficult financial reality, we could all use more options!
If you need the help of an experienced family law attorney for your alimony or support case in Squirrel Hill, Greenfield or Edgewood, call our office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced Pittsburgh area support and alimony enforcement attorney and to learn how to get the most out of your modification dispute. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.