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Economy gives some dads a bad rap

Shadows of mother with children.

TEXT OF STORY

Stacey Vanek-Smith: It seems like the recession and the unemployment rate are hitting every aspect of life these days. Divorce is no exception. As more parents feel a loss of income, many are asking family courts to adjust child support payments. The bad economy is also pushing some parents into payment delinquency, contributing to the problem of deadbeat dads.

From Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov reports.


Monica Brady-Myerov: When someone loses a job, the bills don't stop coming. Mortgage, car payments, health insurance and for some, child support. But Ned Holstein, president of Fathers and Families, a group that presents dads, says there's a big difference.

Ned Holstein: Everybody is struggling. But someone who has a child support order is the only person who's going to be put in jail, because they can't pay their debts.

That's why more parents who've lost their jobs are asking the courts to lower their child support payments. That's what's happening to Jim Feeney. He's a divorced father of four who lives on Cape Cod. Before he lost his job in January, he made about $85,000 a year. He's required to may $3,200 a month in child support and alimony. When he was laid off, he immediately asked the court if he could pay less.

Jim Feeney: First, I filed for unemployment, I filed for welfare, food stamps, because I had no income. I had no savings.

Feeney spoke about his case at a restaurant after his hearing, which he had to wait two and a half months for. The judge denied his request to lower his payments and after six months after not meeting them, Feeney was put in jail. After two days behind bars, he paid a $5,000 fine and was released. But his stint in jail didn't lower his child support obligations and the fines he's racking up because he's not paying.

Feeney: There's penalties to the state, there's penalties that go to my ex-wife, there's interest to the state, there's interest that goes to my ex-wife.

Feeney's former wife refused to comment for this story. But another ex-wife of another man who just lost his job does have something to say. She's Julie Baker, she's the primary care giver to two children, ages five and nine. Her ex was recently laid off.

Julie Baker: The first thing he said was, "I'll try to keep up the child support."

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Baker said her former husband has been a supportive dad who's always paid on time. But if the tables were turned:

Baker: If I lost my job, I can't say to the kids, "You know what? You can't have lunch today. You know what? I'm sorry that your shoes are too small."

And more out-of-work parents want to change their child support agreements. But just asking the court to lower your payments, because you lost your job, isn't always enough.

Divorce attorney B.J. Krintzman says the courts are slow moving.

B.J. Krintzman: They're not going to get very far if they go in that week and say, "I lost my job, so I can no longer pay." Usually there has to be some kind of period of time that's gone by, so the obligor has to show attempts to get a job.

Some judges are sympathetic and lower payments right away, because they know it's unlikely someone will get a new job quickly. But typically it takes six months for a judge to make a decision.

Holstein: And during those couple of months, you can be going broke in a hurry.

Ned Holstein of Fathers and Families.

Holstein: Then when you get the hearing, typically, the family court judges will not give you relief at the first hearing. They say, "Well, how do we know this is going to be long standing? You might get a job next week. Also, you've got some assets, you can pay it out of your assets. And so, I'll see you again in three more months."

But it's putting fathers who mean well and love their kids in jail, because they can't pay.

Krintzman: And this is not daddy jail; this is real jail.

But divorce attorney B.J. Krintzman says what ends up happening is dads borrow money from family and friends.

Krintzman: Usually it is very rare that someone stays in jail for 30 days. So they do find ways to find the money and pay up the back child support and get themselves out of jail.

And when they do get out of jail, they'll owe even more, because child support obligations don't stop while someone is behind bars.

In Boston, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov for Marketplace Money.

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