Support and Rights of Fathers
Child Support: Recalculating Payments Can Be Tough for the Non-Custodial Parent
Many non-custodial parents complain about the way that child support affects their wallet — and it does, significantly — but the pain of child support can often be much more than financial.
Alphonso Gibbs, a father of one, from Baltimore, Md., knows the high cost of child support all too well. Fourteen years ago, when he and his wife divorced and he started paying child support for his son, meeting the amount — close to 30 percent of his gross pay — each month was “challenging, to say the least,” he says.
Gibbs and his ex-wife divorced in California, the same state they were married in 17 years ago. But after the divorce, Gibbs’ ex-wife moved to Georgia to earn a law degree, he said. “I was paying her California money while she was living in Georgia.”
Child support calculations differ by state, but most states use a standard formula, calculating each parent’s income and then taking a portion of the non-custodial parent’s income and calling it child support. While he isn’t upset at his ex, Gibbs has been consistently disappointed by the way he feels the system favors her. “I am guilty until proven innocent in every way,” he says. “Meanwhile, she is always innocent. No matter what she says.”
These built-in incentives for the winner in the legal system are what Robert Ferrer, board member of the
Children’s Rights Council of Illinois (CRC-IL), a non-custodial parents and children’s rights organization in Illinois that advocates for equal parenting time, calls carrots. “And they only add to the animosity in any divorce,” he says.
Gibbs was lucky. Unlike many non-custodial parents, he was able to get his child support order modified once his ex-wife graduated from law school based on money she could potentially earn, “a fact that made Gibbs’ case unique,” says Ferrer. According to the Urban Institute (an institute investigating and analyzing U.S. social and economic problems and issues), less than one in 20 non-custodial parents seeking modifications in their child support, many for reasonable reasons such as job loss, change or incapacitation “is approved,” says Ferrer.
“The courts judge parents on their ability to make money, not necessarily on the amount they make,” says Ferrer. In Gibbs’ case, this fact was helpful, but in the vast majority of cases, the non-custodial parent — most often the father — is not able to modify their support order even with legitimate and well-documented reasons.
Child support is based on the policy that both parents are obligated to support their children. Typically, visitation rights are awarded to non-custodial parents, but most often one parent is awarded custody, rendering that parent the primary caregiver, and the one who received child support. Meanwhile, the non-custodial parent is obligated to pay a proportion of the costs involved in raising the child.
This number is calculated by the court and varies state by state. In Massachusetts, for example, a non-custodial parent can expect to forfeit one-third of his gross pay in child support for one child, regardless of visitation, regardless of the salary of the custodial parent.
Child support collection has become quite sophisticated with automatic wage garnishment and many enforcement incentives. Non-custodial parents who find themselves in arrearage are subject to loss of their passport, driver’s license and car. They are unable to apply for loans or obtain a passport. But even with the new systems, in its last report in 2004, the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reported that the total amount of unpaid child support debt is $102 billion. On the plus side, the agency says it has collected and distributed $239 billion in child support in the past 30 years, according to its report.
“And while that statistic seems good, there are many factors beyond being a deadbeat that might cause them to fall behind,” says Ferrer. “But those often do not matter,” he says. “The major issue is how society looks at dads,” he says. If Dad is looked at almost exclusively as a financial parent then we miss out on the equally important areas.”
“For many fathers, the sheer amount of money coupled with the lack of adequate time with their children in the standard visitation model (every other weekend and four hours on Wednesday) causes disengagement,” says Ferrer. “And the research supports this. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between father’s involvement and support,” Ferrer says.
“Men are going to have a lot of problems if they think they are spending too much or the money is going to things other than the child,” says Professor Geoffrey Greif of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has written several books on the topic of single fatherhood and divorce. According to Greif, a support order interpreted as unreasonable by the father can undermine the relationship between father and child. “When fathers are seen only as a paycheck, that tends to make them feel less comfortable as nurturers,” he says.
No one would argue that child support is not important, says Mike Dockarty, Chair of CRC-IL. “When fathers get greater quality time with their children, they are much more receptive to paying child support,” says Dockarty. “Most fathers just want to see a rational explanation for the child support calculation.”
Most research agrees that child support is a crucial part of the equation in determining a child’s future success. “It is well established that children whose fathers pay child support tend to experience fewer behavioral and social problems and to perform better in school than children whose fathers do not,” says
Solangel Maldonado, a professor of law at Seton Hall University in her 2005 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, Beyond Economic Fatherhood: “Encouraging Divorced Fathers to Parent.”
“Most non-custodial parents agree,” says Ferrer. “Most fathers believe they have an obligation to support their children.” The questions arise around the amount and around the other kinds of contributions fathers may make that do not count in their child support calculations.
“For a father who has his children 45 percent of the time and supports them all the time they are at his house to have to pay child support to the mother is not equitable,” says Ferrer. “Many times the custodial parent can end up with a higher income than the non-custodial parent,” says Ferrer, a fact that Gibbs said he knows all too well.
“My ex has been able to buy a house. I have been renting ever since,” says Gibbs. Recently, Gibbs’ son moved from California to Baltimore to live at his house for a year. Although he was able to stop paying support to his ex-wife, he was not able to get her to pay support to him. “She did not pay a nickel toward his care the whole time he was with me,” Gibbs says.
This is not uncommon. Since, the issues of child support and visitation or contact are completely separate and individually enforceable, a change to one does not automatically mean a change to the other. And while custodial parents are not allowed to withhold contact anymore than a noncustodial parent is allowed to withhold child support, many fathers argue that things are not this simple.
“Child support obligations can be so high that they make visitation very difficult,” says Ferrer. “For parents who do not live in the same city as their children, visitation can mean plane tickets, car rental and hotel rooms, as well as food and other expenses. For some non-custodial parents, this might mean only being able to see their child once or twice a year. And even for those parents who live in the same state, there are certain marginal costs that will be the same regardless of who has custody,” Ferrer says. “These include bedrooms for the children, gifts, toys, food and clothing at each house. But none of these items are counted as child support.”
And while prevailing wisdom might hold that fathers who are in arrearage, or deadbeat dads, are also not seeing their children, Maldonado’s other 2005 paper in the University of California at Davis Law Review, Deadbeat or Deadbroke: “Redefining Child Support For Poor Fathers,” says that this is not always true.
Although the majority of poor, non-resident fathers do not pay child support, many make in-kind and nonfinancial contributions to their children. “Child support enforcement officials have not recognized these contributions, crediting only formal child support payments,” says Maldonado in her study. She proposes that the law recognizes all of the contributions poor, nonresident fathers make to their children and credit them against formal child support obligations.
Ferrer agrees with Maldonado’s research. “Fathers are more involved with their children than ever before,” he says. “This has become a public health issue, the health of our children. It seems that if we take away some of the built-in “carrots” in our legal system, maybe things would change.”
Sasha Brown-Worsham is a freelance writer in Boston, Mass. who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Technology Review, Babble.com and many other publications.