Determining custody and child support are easily some of the most contentious aspects of a divorce.
And that’s understandable. When confronted with the dissolution of their marriage, many parents feel pain, fury, and grief. However, these emotions often make way for a cycle of blame and manipulation that affects every aspect of decision-making — specifically decisions which affect the children.
How Adversarial Divorce Impacts Child Support and Custody
It’s no secret that divorce leaves no child unaffected. But when a custody battle enters the courtroom, problems may linger long after a divorce is final. After a divorce, parents that were once hurt and angry often become embittered co-parents. And, in their attempts to regain control over a situation that has left them feeling very much out of control, parents may use their children as pawns in a game that is sadly never won.
Unfortunately, the traditional system of determining custody and child support payments — an adversarial system — leaves little alternatives for parents who want to do right by their children.
“The adversarial system is the undertow that drags people into conflict,” says Steve Erickson, advanced practitioner mediator and the founder of Erickson Mediation Institute. “Most people want to do the best for their kids, but they get stuck in the adversarial system, and continue to view each other as opponents. Even in the most basic situations, the court invades their lives. Billions of dollars are spent in the transaction of finding out who’s right and wrong.”
Erickson believes the current system is not just flawed but completely broken. For starters, it defines one parent as an absent parent, which he says is an outdated model.
“Because of the economy,” says Erickson, “more couples who divorce or separate have to work full time. Consequently, we’re seeing much more equivalent time-sharing agreements. The child support guidelines don’t fit well because they were designed for an era that doesn’t exist anymore. They were designed for a time when one parent was the noncustodial visitor. That doesn’t happen in most divorces these days.”
And the numbers speak for themselves. According to Erickson, the cumulative $112 billion in unpaid child support — over just the last five years — is evidence that the current system doesn’t work. In addition, the child support formula in most states doesn’t specify what child support should be used for, which can perpetuate conflict.
“We have a system that’s archaic. It creates all sorts of hardship and animosity,” he says. “It’s time to move people toward the recognition that the other person is not an opponent but their partner.”
But what if there were a way to eliminate — or at least drastically reduce — the contention experienced by so many parents as they make decisions about custody and child support?
The Children’s Joint Account — A Proven Alternative
Since the 1980s, Erickson has been one of the first mediators to advocate for both parenting plans and what one might refer to as child support plans. Recently we spoke with him about the Child Support Checkbook (now referred to as the Children’s Joint Account), which he created in 1983 as a way to prevent the fighting and hostility that so often afflicts co-parents as they make child-support-related decisions.
Here’s how it works.
Both parents sit down to identify and discuss the costs related to caring for their children throughout the year and divide these into categories of shared costs — which may include lunch tickets, school clothing, and medical-related related expenses — and separately paid costs (which would not be paid from the joint account)— entertainment-related expenses such as eating out or vacationing.
With these categories in mind, both parents then pay child support into a joint account, in proportion to their respective incomes. As the children’s needs arise, either parent may withdraw money from the account. And, when their children’s needs change, the language in the agreement allows parents to add or modify categories of expenditures.
“You’re going to be earning different incomes,” reasons Erickson. “Your children’s expenses are going to change over time. Why use a formula cranked out by the Legislature that amalgamizes children’s expenses?”
The Children’s Account allows for basic record-keeping, just like in a business. And Erickson says the process is not unlike how any business operates in terms of budgetary planning: stakeholders usually sit down and plan for the next year, allocating funds to the anticipated expense categories, then trying to meet those expenses while hopefully not overspend.
Even if co-parents don’t want to have a joint checking account with their former spouses, Erickson says there are variations of the Children’s Joint Account. He believes the real value of the account is in its principles — principles that encourage joint communication and shared responsibilities.
In his decades sharing the Children’s Joint Account method and traveling extensively to speak and write about its benefits, Erickson says he never hears about problems from his clients after they begin using it.
“I’ve never had one [client] go back to court to end it, ever,” he explains. “The reason, of course, is that we’re moving them out of the adversarial arrangement. The Children’s Joint Account assumes cooperation — it acknowledges that both parents will care for the children proportionally. We as mediators assume people are competent and capable; the legal system says no you’re not competent.”
“This idea succeeds the same way parenting plans succeeded,” says Erickson. “And the court didn’t permit parenting plans at one time,” he adds. “But you have to be assertive to effect positive change. And I think we can continue to bring about this needed change.”
Learn more about the Children’s Joint Account here.