In a perfect world, parents would willingly -- and be able to -- continue to support their children financially after a divorce. When the economy is bad, however, not all parents can keep current with a support calculation that was made at a time when they were earning more. Even if you're legitimately unable to secure work, a judge might impute income to you for purposes of calculating child support if you can't prove your efforts to find a job.
Imputed means to assign or ascribe. In the case of child support, it means that the court will make calculations based on a certain income, even if a parent isn't earning that money. Most states consider both parents' incomes in child support calculations. Rather than make calculations based on $30,000 earned by your spouse and zero dollars earned by you, a judge will impute income to you and base calculations on that number.
There are a number of ways a judge can arrive at how much income should be assigned to you. He might charge you with income equal to what you would earn if you were employed to your full potential, based on your skills and education. If you left a job in advertising on Madison Avenue, the judge can ascribe to you what other ad execs who work there currently earn. Another option is to assume you're still earning the same money you brought in before your job terminated. In some cases, the judge might just ascribe your state's minimum wage based on a 40-hour work week. This might be the case if you haven't worked in a while and have no real marketable skills.
Judges can also impute passive income. You might have $10,000 sitting in a garden variety savings account, but if you put that money in another investment, it would produce more interest. The judge can make calculations assuming that the money is not wherever you put it, but rather in an account producing more income, and put that extra income in your column, regardless of whether you're actually earning it.
This can be a harsh blow when you're already struggling to make ends meet. Where are you supposed to come up with the money to pay the resulting child support if you're not working? In most cases, and with the help of a lawyer, you probably won't have to if your lack of income is legitimately due to circumstances beyond your control. Courts impute income when a judge finds that a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, such as if you dropped a high-paying professional job to take up a spatula and flip burgers for minimum wage. In other words, you've taken some action to avoid paying child support. If your job has been eliminated due to downsizing or you were laid off, and if you've honestly been unable to find another position, this might be a different story.
These cases can be difficult to win without experienced legal representation. Begin by documenting your situation. If you received a written termination notice ending your employment, this can go a long way toward establishing that you didn't voluntarily leave your job. Next, create a visual snapshot of everything you've done to try to find a new position. This might include a copy of your resume and a detailed list of all the places you've sent it to. It might include postings on websites you've placed, trying to secure another job. If you're declined for a position, ask for the favor of getting it in writing.
Success depends on proving that you're not voluntarily unemployed or underemployed. The worst thing you can do is nothing. Take your documentation to a lawyer so he can ask the court to modify or reduce your support for a while based on your current circumstances. You might end up paying less support until you get back on your feet rather than child support based on money you don't really earn.