Divorce brings many challenges and questions, especially regarding financial obligations like spousal and child support. A common concern during and after divorce for a spouse receiving payments is whether the other spouse can intentionally quit their job or become underemployed to avoid paying spousal and child support.

At Inman, Stadler & Hill, we understand the complexities surrounding spousal and child support in Tennessee and are here to clarify this issue. In this blog, we’ll explore what happens if a spouse who was ordered to pay support suddenly loses or quits their job or reports a large loss of income.

The Legal Standpoint

In Tennessee, spousal and child support are serious court-enforced obligations. The state’s spousal support law is designed to prevent parties from evading these responsibilities through voluntary unemployment or underemployment.

If a spouse who is ordered to pay support suddenly becomes unemployed or takes a significant pay cut without a valid reason, the court may intervene to ensure those payments resume in full as quickly as possible.

The Concept of “Imputed Income”

To address scenarios where a spouse may attempt to dodge support obligations, Tennessee courts utilize the concept of “imputed income.” This legal tool allows the court to attribute a certain income level to an individual, regardless of their current earnings.

For example, if a spouse consistently earns a higher income during the marriage but suddenly reports a lower or no income during the support calculation, the court can impute income based on their employment history, qualifications, and the average earnings in their field.

What Role Do Spousal and Child Support Modification Play in Job Loss Scenarios?

In Tennessee, both child support and spousal support (alimony) orders can be modified due to significant changes in circumstances. Here’s how the law typically addresses modifications in the event of job loss or quitting a job:

Child Support Modifications

For child support, Tennessee law allows for modification in specific scenarios, including the following:

  • Involuntary Job Loss: If a parent loses their job due to factors beyond their control (e.g., company layoffs, economic downturn), this is generally considered a legitimate reason for seeking to modify the child support order.
  • Termination Due to Misconduct: If the court finds that the paying parent was fired due to misconduct or other avoidable reasons, it may not view the job loss as a legitimate change in circumstances justifying a reduction in child support. The court could calculate child support based on the parent’s potential income, assuming they could still be employed if not for their misconduct.
  • Termination Not Related to Misconduct: If the firing was not due to misconduct—for example, if it was related to performance issues that were not within the complete control of the employee—the court might treat this as a valid change in circumstances. This could justify a temporary or permanent modification of the child support order, depending on the new circumstances, such as the parent’s new job prospects and financial situation.
  • Voluntary Job Loss or Quitting: If a parent voluntarily quits their job or seeks lower-paying employment without justifiable cause, the court may view this skeptically. The court might base the support calculation on the parent’s potential income (what they could earn based on their qualifications and job history) rather than their actual, lower income.

Spousal Support (Alimony) Modifications

Alimony, depending on the type, can also be modified based on a change in circumstances, including the following:

  • Voluntary vs. Involuntary Changes: If the payer voluntarily quits a job or takes a lower-paying position, the court may investigate the motives behind their decision. If the court concludes the reduction in income was an attempt to avoid alimony obligations, they may decide against modifying the alimony.
  • Misconduct and Firing: If a spouse paying alimony is fired for misconduct, the court might not consider this a sufficient change in circumstances to modify the alimony payments. Alimony could continue to be calculated based on potential earnings or the conditions before the firing.
  • Legitimate Firing without Misconduct: If the firing was legitimate but not due to misconduct, such as not meeting performance targets despite reasonable effort, the court may view this as a significant and material change in circumstances. This could lead to modifying the alimony amount, especially if it significantly impacts the payer’s ability to maintain previous payment levels.

In both cases, the spouse seeking a modification must file a petition with the court detailing the change in circumstances. The court will then review the new information and decide whether the support payments should be adjusted.

Legal Remedies and Enforcement

If the court finds that a spouse is willfully unemployed or underemployed, it can impute income and calculate support obligations based on that imputed income. This ensures that support calculations are fair and reflect what an individual could earn if they genuinely tried to find appropriate employment.

Additionally, Tennessee law provides several enforcement mechanisms for collecting support payments, including wage assignment orders, contempt of court actions, and, in some cases, jail time for non-compliance. These measures ensure that support obligations are taken seriously and that recipients receive the financial assistance they are entitled to.

Got Spousal or Child Support Questions? We’ve Got Answers.

The fear that a spouse might quit their job to avoid paying spousal or child support is understandable, but the legal system in Tennessee has measures in place to prevent such evasion.

With imputed income and strict enforcement techniques and abilities, the courts strive to ensure fairness in support obligations. In addition, experienced legal help is available to further ensure fairness and reliability in spousal and child support payments.

Inman, Stadler & Hill is here to provide guidance and aggressive advocacy if you’re dealing with concerns about spousal or child support. Contact us today for a consultation to learn how we can help.