New Study Shows Child Support Guidelines in Need of Reform

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

A new study of child support has concluded that most states’ child support guidelines are poorly designed, inequitable, and in need of reform. California’ s guidelines, which are among the highest in the nation, exemplify this inequity, and often place such privations on noncustodial parents that they are unable to remain a meaningful part of their children’ s lives.

The study, "Child Support Guidelines and the Equalization of Living Standards," was conducted by psychology professors Sanford Braver and David Stockburger, and will appear in the soon-to-be-released book The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments.

The researchers conclude that nationwide "under current child support guidelines, the majority of custodial parents currently have higher standards of living than their matched noncustodial parents," and that in some situations this inequity is "dramatic."

A recent study of California child support obligors conducted by the Urban Institute reflects the effects of these high guidelines, particularly as they impact low-income and minority men. According to the report, only 25% of California’ s $14.4 billion child support arrearage will be collected over the next decade, not because the debt is owed by high living divorced dads who won’ t pay, but because the support amounts demanded of noncustodial parents are often wildly unrealistic. The average arrears amount owed is $3,000 higher than the median annual earnings of employed child support debtors. Those in the poorest category have a child support debt amounting to their full net income for seven and a half years. Over a quarter of the arrears total represents interest due on principal.

Braver and Stockburger conclude that the guidelines have become tilted against noncustodial parents in large part because they fail to consider the significant tax benefits accorded only to custodial parents. Whereas child support income is tax-free to the custodial parent, noncustodial parents must pay federal, state, and local income tax, as well as social security or FICA, on the money they pay in support. Also, in most cases only the custodial parent can claim the $3,050 per child tax exemption. Additional custodial parent tax advantages include: the Child Tax Credit (worth up to $1,000 per child); the Earned Income Credit (up to $4,204, with two children); deductions for school tuition and fees (up to $3,000 per return); the Child Care Credit (worth up to $1,050 per child); and a lower tax rate for "head of household" filing status.

Conversely, the federal tax code treats divorced and unwed fathers–who are often paying 40 or 50 percent of their net income in child support–as if they are childless bachelors.

Also, Braver and Stockburger point out that the current guidelines and the studies upon which they were based ignore the many child-related costs borne by noncustodial parents, including transportation, entertainment, and food during visitation, as well as money spent on clothes and out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses. And because California has been extremely permissive in allowing custodial parent move-aways, noncustodial parents often shoulder sizable burdens in travel expenses.

If fact, the researchers probably understate the child support inequities noncustodial fathers face. Because the child support system is so inflexible, most fathers who lose their jobs or suffer wage cuts are not able to get downward modifications on their child support. These fathers end up paying support based on past wage levels which do not reflect their current, diminished earnings.

In addition, while California is generally enthusiastic about enforcing child support orders, its courts are indifferent at best to enforcing noncustodial parents’ visitation rights–rights which studies show are frequently violated. Noncustodial parents must pay out of pocket for legal representation to enforce these rights. Few family issues are as heartbreaking as the common scenario of a noncustodial father paying so much of his income in child support that he cannot even afford to go to court to fight for his right to see his children.

Many California fathers who fall in arrears on their child support suffer punitive measures, such as suspension or loss of driver’ s licenses, passports, and business licenses. Others struggle to stay out of jail or feel it’ s hopeless and disappear. Most of these men aren’t deadbeats, but instead fathers who worked hard to support their children both before and after their breakups with their children’ s mothers.

Children need financial support, but they also need their parents’ love and emotional support. What rationale is there for California’ s child support guidelines if they serve to harm or drive away one of the two people who most love a child?

  • Daily Breeze (Los Angeles, California)