Thursday, January 16, 2014
Child Support and Shared Parenting
January 14, 2014 by Don Hubin, PhD, Chair, Executive Committee, National Parents Organization of Ohio
Many don’t realize that our modern (and I use the term advisedly) federal child support system is an outgrowth of the welfare system. It was not originally designed for cases of divorce; it was originally designed to ensure that those men who had sired children assume financial responsibility for them. (I say ‘sired’ instead of ‘fathered’ because fathering is much more than causing a pregnancy.) It is because of this heritage that child support agencies often used to refer to obligors as “Absent Parents”. This label is seldom used outside the agencies anymore; it caused some measure of offense, which seemed to surprise the child support agencies. (I remember vividly coming home one night to cook dinner for my kids, help them with their homework, put them to bed and, finally, get a chance to open my mail, only to find a letter from my friendly child support agency addressed with the salutation, “Dear Absent Parent”. when I complained, the director of the agency asked me what I wanted to be called. I said, “father”.) The legacy lives on, hidden from public eyes, in many child support computer systems that designate obligors as ‘AP’s.
This history of the federal child support system affects more than just the way that child support agencies look at and label child support obligors. In many states, it affects the way child support is thought of and how it is calculated. The child support calculations used in many states assume that child support obligors have no direct expenses on their children; they are assumed to be genuinely absent parents. Furthermore, often the methodology used to calculate child support is hostile to true shared parenting.
In some states, for example, shared parenting is treated as an instance of “extended visitation”. One parent is treated as the custodial parent and the other as noncustodial for child support purposes, and then a deviation (adjustment) is made to acknowledge the extended parenting time. This happens even if the two parents share parenting time and expenses equally and have similar incomes. The results are often bizarre. In one Ohio case, for example, the parent with the lower income was designated the obligor and the result was, though the parents divided the children’s time and expenses equally, that parent was ordered to pay child support to the parent with the higher income, resulting in further disparity between the two homes. (This case is discussed, with citations, in the first two documents available on this page: https://sites.google.com/site/hubincase/legislative-efforts.)
Some people believe that in shared parenting cases, there should be no child support obligation at all. But this ignores the fact that the parents might have very different resources and, even though they’re sharing custody, different expenses on the children.
How should child support be calculated in shared parenting cases? I’ve thought a fair bit about this because it was the issue in my own divorce that I took to the Ohio Supreme Court. Conceptually, it’s not that complicated. A reasonable and justified estimate needs to be made of the costs necessary to raise the children in a manner appropriate given the parents financial resources. That constitutes the parents’ combined child support obligation. The obligation to contribute toward that sum should be apportioned between the parents based on their ability to pay. (This might sound like communism — “from each according to his/her ability” — but it concerns only the distribution of child rearing costs within the family and I’ve heard no one argue that support of one’s own children should be subject to a laissez faire marketplace.) Then, that sum should be divided between the two parents’ homes based on the anticipated expenses on the children.
This approach gets the result right. Consider a few test cases. Suppose that mom and dad have equal incomes and expenses on the children. In such a case, neither should be paying child support to the other. “No child support!” you can almost hear some people shriek. But this doesn’t mean “no child support”; it means no child support transfer payment. The children are supported by each parent directly and there is no need for a transfer payment between the parents. Suppose, now, that the parents have equal incomes but one parent has substantially higher child costs than the other — perhaps because the time isn’t divided equally or perhaps because that parent is paying for child care, lessons, private school, or whatever. In this case, the parent with the lower direct child-related costs would make a child support transfer payment to the parent with the higher costs. This transfer payment is made so that each parent makes an equal contribution to the support of the children. Now suppose that one parent has far higher income than the other but they have equal time and expenses on the children. In this case, the higher earning parent would make a transfer payment to the other parent. This isn’t in order to equalize the incomes in the homes. It is to assign to that parent his or her fair share of the combined cost of raising the children.
This approach seems so obviously sensible to most people that it’s surprising how foreign it is to those involved in setting and enforcing child support obligations. Surprising, that is, until you realize that the federal child support system was designed to ferret out scofflaws and ne’re-do-wells who abandon their children and get money from them in order to relieve the taxpayers of some of the cost of raising their people’s children. It was not designed originally to handle the cases of divorces and separations where both parents have been, and hope to continue to be, involved in raising their children. It doesn’t deal particularly well with these cases, which is why National Parents Organization is dedicated to changing child support laws and policies in ways that will promote, rather than inhibit, true shared parenting.
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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