Can an Oregon Spousal Support Order Be Modified Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Over the recent weeks, COVID-19, also known as the novel Coronavirus, has spread across the globe. Currently, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Americans have contracted the disease. While the effects of COVID-19 can vary in both symptoms and severity, they commonly include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath

The spread of COVID-19 has essentially shut down many businesses indefinitely. Economists estimate that, if things continue on the current course, the national unemployment rate could increase from about four percent to 20 percent. Regardless, many employees across all industries will lose their jobs, be furloughed, or have their hours reduced. As experienced Oregon divorce and family law attorneys, we at Gearing, Rackner & McGrath have received numerous questions about how the Coronavirus can impact an Oregon spousal support order. As is often the case with complex legal questions, the answer is that it depends.

Oregon Spousal Support Orders

In Oregon, spousal support refers to the payment of money from one spouse to another. Courts do not order spousal support in every case. However, when one party requests spousal maintenance, the court will consider the following:

  • The length of the marriage;
  • Both spouses’ training, employment skills, and work experience;
  • The financial needs and resources of each spouse;
  • The tax ramifications spousal support will have on each spouse;
  • Whether either spouse has custody of a child or pays child support; and
  • Any other factors that would be appropriate to consider in creating a fair order.

When a judge orders spousal support, it can be either for a finite period of time or, often in the case of long-term marriages, an indefinite duration. In either case, a court’s decision to award spousal support can be modified. It is through a request for modification that a party can request an increase or decrease in spousal maintenance payments due to COVID-19.

Oregon courts will consider modifying a spousal support order when either party experiences a substantial change in their financial situation. Specifically, courts require the requesting party show that there has been a “substantial, unanticipated change in economic circumstances since the time of the earlier award.” If the court finds that such a change occurred, it will then “determine what amount of support is just and equitable under the totality of the circumstances.” Courts have held that a “significant deterioration in health” may legally justify a modification of spousal support.

The Effect of Coronavirus on Those Who Receive Spousal Support

The COVID-19 pandemic creates uncertainty for those who are receiving Oregon spousal support payments. As noted above, courts can entertain a request to modify an Oregon spousal support order when either party experiences a substantial, unanticipated change in their economic circumstances. Job loss can be the basis of the party’s request to modify an existing spousal support order. Thus, if a former spouse has been laid off as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, they may be able to file for a reduction in the amount of spousal support they pay to the receiving spouse each month. However, the court will also consider the financial circumstances of the spouse who receives support. Due to the economic fall out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be many cases where both spouses sustain a decrease in income. Overall, the court must balance the equities in an effort to satisfy the purposes of the original spousal support award. The court will consider the parties’ living expenses and make difficult decisions about the overall priorities.

Importantly, however, lawmakers are in the process of passing a series of bills that provide relief for many employees who have been impacted by the Coronavirus. Thus, spouses who are responsible for paying spousal support may not be absolved from their support responsibility even if they are temporarily without work. Additionally, even if a payor spouse is laid off or otherwise not working during the Coronavirus crisis, their obligation to continue making payments remains until their request for a modification is resolved. If the modification is granted, the court has discretion to make the change retroactive to the date of the modification request. The court will try to pick a fair date to start the new support amount.

Former spouses who are entitled to support, but are having difficulty receiving payments can seek to hold the support payor in contempt of court for failing or refusing to pay the amount of support ordered. At Gearing, Rackner & McGrath, we understand how important monthly spousal support payments are to you and your family and our dedicated attorneys will work diligently to enforce court orders for child and spousal support.

The Effect of Coronavirus on Those Who Pay Spousal Support

Tens of thousands of Americans have been diagnosed with the Coronavirus. While the number of people infected by the disease in Oregon is relatively low compared to other states, the number of Oregon COVID-19 cases is expected to increase significantly as the virus spreads and as the government’s efforts to increase testing ramp up.

To help reduce the rate of spread, the state and federal governments have begun encouraging a strict policy of social distancing. On March 23, 2020, Governor Kate Brown issued an order closing or limiting numerous businesses and making social distancing mandatory for most others. Governor Brown has also ordered the closing of public schools and state parks, and restaurants and bars have been limited to pick-up and delivery orders. Additional closures may be forthcoming. While these temporary policies are necessary to fight the spread of COVID-19, they have also resulted in many Oregon residents being laid off or furloughed, and many of those employees who remain working have seen significant reductions in their hours and income. For many, this will make it difficult or impossible to pay court-ordered spousal support.

Those impacted by the COVID-19 can petition the court to modify or terminate their spousal support obligation. Because the window of time during which the modification could be effective starts when the motion is served, it is crucial to act quickly once your income has dropped. Former spouses who have recently been furloughed or had their hours reduced may run into difficulties obtaining a modification order if their employment situation is expected to swiftly improve in the near future. Of course, given the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to assess what the future holds. A prudent payor might choose to file for modification quickly but then seek to slow-play or pause the case so that they can better assess their income prospects.

Former spouses who are required to pay spousal support and have recently been laid off from their job, or who otherwise cannot work due to the COVID-19 pandemic should reach out to an experienced Portland divorce attorney for immediate assistance. At Gearing, Rackner & McGrath, our attorneys can help you seek a modification order for spousal support. We see the effect that the Coronavirus is taking on our community and want to help make sure that it doesn’t further jeopardize your financial situation.

Schedule a Confidential Consultation with a Spousal Support Attorney

If you are paying or receiving spousal support and believe that the Coronavirus may impact the support order, contact one of the dedicated Oregon family law attorneys at Gearing, Rackner & McGrath, LLP. As committed divorce lawyers, we have extensive experience handling Portland divorce cases as well as the related issues that frequently come up when going through a divorce, including modifications of spousal and child support orders. To learn more about how our award-winning attorneys can help you through what is certainly a difficult time, call us at 503-468-6741 or contact us through our online form to learn more about how we can help.