New Study Shows Massachusetts’ Child Support Guidelines Among Worst in Nation

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

A new study of child support has concluded that Massachusetts’ guidelines are among the most poorly designed in the nation.

The study examines the child support guidelines of seven geographically and politically diverse states, including Massachusetts. The researchers conclude that "under current child support guidelines, the majority of custodial parents currently have higher standards of living than their matched noncustodial parents," and that Massachusetts’ guidelines represent the most "dramatic" example of this inequity.

The study, "Child Support Guidelines and the Equalization of Living Standards," was conducted by divorce researcher Sanford Braver, co-author of Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths, and psychology professor David Stockburger, and appears in the soon to be released book The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments.

Leaving aside the popularity of anti-father politics, the authors conclude that the support guidelines have become tilted against noncustodial parents because they fail to consider the large tax benefits custodial parents enjoy, as well as noncustodial parents’ child-related expenses.

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); a lower tax rate for "head of household" filing status; and numerous others.

While noncustodial parents pay part of these expenses through child support or direct court orders, they are not allowed the concomitant tax deductions. The federal tax code treats divorced and unwed fathers paying 30, 40 or 50 percent of their income in child support as if they are childless bachelors.

Braver and Stockburger also criticize the current guidelines and the studies upon which they were based for their assumption that, excluding child support, a household’s income is only spent on the members of that household. This "sacrosanct household" assumption ignores 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.

In Divorced Dads Tom, a divorced father of two boys, explains that because all of his children’s possessions remained with the custodial mother after divorce, "I don’t have bicycles, games, video gear or toys for the boys to play with unless I go out and buy them."

Also, because Massachusetts generally allows custodial parent move-aways, noncustodial parents often shoulder sizable burdens in travel expenses.

After accounting for taxes and noncustodial parent expenses, Braver and Stockburger conclude that a Massachusetts custodial parent need earn only 40% of what a matched noncustodial parent earns in order to enjoy a standard of living equal to that of the noncustodial parent. By contrast, U.S. Census data shows that the median income of the category closely resembling female divorced custodial parents is far higher–85% of that of male noncustodial parents. In fact, in six of the seven states studied, the median income a custodial parent needs to have a standard of living equal to that of the noncustodial parent is below 85%, often dramatically so.

The guidelines have been slanted against divorced dads so sharply that their obligations often cause them to fall deeply in arrears, particularly if they have been laid off or have suffered drops in income. Some struggle to stay out of jail, while others feel it’s hopeless and disappear. Most of these men aren’t deadbeats, but instead fathers who supported their children honorably while married and after their divorces. What rationale is there for Massachusetts’ child support guidelines if they serve to drive away one of the two people who most love a child?

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