Unemployment During Divorce
By Rob Jennings J.D.
Updated August 05, 2019
Divorce can tear through your life like an emotional and financial hurricane. Not only do you lose your spouse, but you may also lose your car, your home and even your children. Sometimes, in the midst of all this misfortune, you also lose your job. If you or your soon-to-be-ex-spouse becomes unemployed, it can affect your ongoing divorce case in several important ways.
In most states, child support is figured pursuant to a set of guidelines that take into account the incomes of the parties and child-related expenses such as day care and medical insurance premiums. When one of you loses your job, the most important input -- income -- changes. Medical insurance may disappear, as may the need for work-related child-care expenses. While some unemployment situations are temporary, many are followed by a party's inability to get a new job paying as much as the old one. This can cause an essentially permanent shift in how much child support you will be paying or receiving.
Many states don't have guidelines for alimony. Instead, alimony is usually based upon the need of the dependent spouse to receive payments from the supporting spouse in order to maintain her in the standard of living to which she became accustomed during the marriage. The loss of a dependent spouse's job can make her even more dependent, while the loss of a supporting spouse's job can make him or her less able to pay support. If a marked loss of income will become permanent, job loss can wipe out an alimony claim entirely.
In equitable-distribution states, one of you becoming unemployed can affect whether the court divides your marital estate equally or orders an unequal division in favor of the unemployed spouse. Equitable-distribution jurisdictions seek a fair division, which doesn't always mean equal. The earnings and earning potential of both of you are factors that can influence the court's decision. This is not so much an issue in those few states that practice community property, but in both types of systems, job loss by one party will affect that party's ability to make payments on marital debt.
Outside of paying your lawyer, your income usually has nothing to do with child custody. Your job, however, does. Courts decide child custody matters based upon the best interests of the children, which requires a consideration of each parent's ability to provide care. If split custody wasn't a realistic expectation for you before because your job required frequent travel, the landscape may shift if you lose that job and replace it with one that offers more regular hours. It can go the other way, too; if you lose your job and replace it with something requiring night or shift work, you may be a weaker litigant in child custody court.
A practicing attorney since 2003, Rob Jennings has written fiction and nonfiction since 2005, with his work appearing in a variety of print and online publications. He earned his Juris Doctor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.