A judge cannot force a parent to work, but can force a parent to look for work in order to pay Wisconsin child support. Usually, this is done by requiring the unemployed parent to submit a certain number of job applications each month, and document those applications to the judge. If the parent refuses to do so, after a period of time, he/she will be found in contempt of court. Sometimes, the parent will be jailed to force compliance. However, this solution is not very helpful because it would prevent the parent from finding any work at all.
Another option is for the judge to “impute” income to the unemployed parent. The judge determines what the parent “should” be earning, and will order child support as if he/she was employed. The parent’s imputed presumed income is determined either by reviewing previous years’ income, or sometimes by requiring a vocational evaluation. In this case, a professional evaluator reviews the parent’s education, job history, and experience. That information is then compared to the job market to arrive at an appropriate job and salary.
There may be situations, such as seasonal employment, illness, layoffs, etc., when unemployment may be understandable for a period of time. In those cases, it may be reasonable to modify child support temporarily until work resumes. However, both parents have an obligation to support their children by actively seeking appropriate employment. Long-term un- or underemployment, without good cause, is not viewed favorably by Wisconsin child support judges.
The above concepts also apply to maintenance/spousal support. While the maintenance obligation is in force, former spouses both have an obligation to work to their reasonable earning capacities. Quitting a job or taking a much lower-paying job, without justification, will not automatically result in a reduction in maintenance for the payer. The recipient must also work diligently to maintain earnings consistent with his/her skills and experience.