For many people, the loss of a job is a horrible and stressful time. I am often asked whether losing a job can change child support.
This issue can become even more challenging if your ex wants to take you back to court and wants to make you pay child support even when you aren’t earning anything. In one recent case, an out-of-work science professor made the very bad decision to represent himself in court, leading to a trial court decision that imputed an income of $95,000 to the unemployed man and a Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruling upholding the lower court’s judgment. Imputed income means income that a court imputes, or to assign a value to, based on inferences that a court makes.
The centerpiece of this case was the job search of a father, Ivan Belyakov. The father had served as a professor until losing his job in December 2012. Earlier that year, Belyakov’s wife had filed for divorce, and she sought an award of child support for the couple’s two children. Ten months after losing his job, the father remained unemployed.
At trial on the child support issue, the mother put an expert witness on the stand to prove that the father had voluntarily impoverished himself. This means that the Dad basically purposely lost his job or purposely didn’t work. The vocational rehabilitation expert testified that someone with the father’s credentials should have been able to land a new job within about six months. In the 10 months since his job ended, the father had applied for roughly 100 jobs and secured no new employment.
This evidence persuaded the trial court, who found the father to be voluntarily impoverished and imputed, or ascribed, to him an income of $95,000 per year. Imputing an income for child support involves calculating support based the guidelines associated with a particular level of income, even though the paying parent does not actually make that income. In this case, that meant that the court imputed an income of $95,000 to the father and ordered him to pay $1,611 per month in child support. This is in spite of the fact that Dad had no job!
A year later, the father sought a modification to his child support. He said that he remained unemployed. This, he argued, was a material change of circumstances that allowed the trial court to lower his support obligation. The trial court disagreed and denied his motion.
The father appealed but still lost. Simply because the father applied for 400 jobs in the second year (as opposed to 100 in the first) did not automatically establish a change in circumstances. “Submitting a certain quantity of job applications or working with a certain number of recruiters does not negate the circuit court’s finding that there was been a purposeful decision to eschew employment,” the appeals court stated in its opinion. Trial courts have broad authority to determine which witnesses are credible and which are not. In this case, the trial court did not believe the father’s testimony about his diligence, which it was within its discretion to do. Based upon the discrediting of the father’s testimony, it was not unreasonable for the trial court to conclude that no material change in circumstances had occurred.
As mentioned above, trial courts have broad discretion in making factual findings. That is why it is so important to ensure you put on a strong case in the trial court. One factor that may very possibly have harmed the father’s case and fueled his complete defeats before both courts was his decision to represent himself, both at trial and on appeal. The father clearly misunderstood and underestimated his responsibilities as a self-represented party, erroneously arguing on appeal that the trial judge “should have provided him assistance in conducting the hearing,” even though the law is clear that self-represented people are held to the same standard as lawyers in court and are not entitled to extra help from judges. Belyakov’s decision also impaired his appeal, which the appeals court critiqued as “imprecise.”