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February 29th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A proposed new federal Treasury regulation will give states the power to take every single penny a father has to pay child support.  A separate regulation, in place since last May allows states to freeze the bank accounts of child support obligors who receive income from federal agencies.  That includes Social Security, Veterans’ Benefits, Disability Income, and the like.  Read about it here (CBS Local, 2/28/12).

The proposed regulation seems innocuous enough on its face.  Under it, the Treasury Department will stop paying benefits by paper checks and start paying them all via electronic funds transfer.  That means non-custodial parents, 84% of whom are men, will no longer be able to simply cash the checks and keep the proceeds away from state agencies seeking to take it for current child support, back child support, interest and fees or all of the above.

In addition, the new rules will allow states to take 100% of federal benefits paid instead of 65% which is the existing rule. 

So there you have it.  If the regulation goes into effect, states will now be able to take 100% of many men’s only income to pay child support.

“It’s kind of Orwellian, what’s being set up here for a segment of the population,” says Johnson Tyler, an attorney who represents poor and disabled people collecting federal benefits. “It’s going to be a nightmare in about a year unless something changes.”

In many cases, the bills are decades old and the children long grown. Much of the money owed is interest and fees that add up when men are unable to pay because they are disabled, institutionalized or imprisoned.

Most of the money will go to governments, not to the children of the men with child support debts, independent analyses show. States are allowed to keep child support money as repayment for welfare previously provided for those children.

In some instances, the grown children are supporting their fathers.

I’ve written in the past about the shame of states’ denying indigent fathers the right to an attorney when faced with prison for their inability to pay child support.  It’s a system Charles Dickens would find familiar.  As the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has told us, family courts often order levels of child support the parent is unable to pay in the first place.  Then, when he falls behind, loses his job or becomes disabled, the same court takes months to grant him a hearing.  By then, he’s deeply in arrears and interest and fees may be digging the hole even deeper.

Next, the state takes his driver’s license and possibly other certificates or licenses required for him to work and earn a living, making payment all the harder.  Finally, if he’s indigent, the same state may deny him the assistance of an attorney to try to keep him out of jail.

As it is, the system closely resembles an express train that the father boards in family court and steps off of in prison.  The proposed regulation makes the trip even quicker.  It all but guarantees that many men will find their sole earnings confiscated entirely to pay a debt that only the draconian nature of child support law makes possible in the first place.

Remember, 63% of non-custodial parents report earning less than $10,000 in the previous year.  That too is according to the Office of Child Support Enforcement.  Now, in the depths of the worst recession in over 70 years, the federal government proposes to make matters worse.

And remember as well that recent Census Bureau data show that only a little over 40% of child support gets paid in full.  In some states like Ohio, 70% of non-custodial parents are behind on their payments.  Even in states like Alabama that has a pretty good record of collections, 50% of non-custodial parents haven’t paid everything they owe.

Then there’s the fact that, when states conduct “sweeps” that threaten child support debtors with a choice of paying or going to jail, they routinely collect a few pennies on the dollar owed.  New Jersey conducts its sweeps twice a year and collects a little over one cent per dollar owed.

Put simply, the proposed regulation could spell disaster for hundreds of thousands of non-custodial parents.

Thousands of poor and disabled men stand to lose their only income next year because of a change in government policy that will allow states to seize every dollar of federal benefits from people who owe back child support.

Previously, states could capture only 65 percent of benefits from people who opted to be paid by paper check. Advocates estimate that 275,000 men could be left destitute as a result of the change.

The child support system is all about money, but not in the way one might think.  As insiders have told us on many occasions, the fact that the federal government pays states a percentage of every dollar they collect in child support, means that those states engage in every conceivable practice to squeeze ever more money out of non-custodial parents.

So it’s no surprise that child support levels are set too high.  To a point, the more money demanded, the more gets paid; and the more that gets paid the more states receive from the feds.  Federal largess also explains why states make downward modification of support orders so difficult.  It also explains why states like Texas spend hundreds of millions of dollars yearly on child support enforcement while almost nothing to enforce visitation.  Washington pays not one thin dime for visitation enforcement.

Due largely to the carrot of federal money, the child support system is flawed from top to bottom.  It needs a complete overhaul to make it fair to non-custodial parents. 

I suspect that won’t come about until mothers become a significant part of the non-custodial parent population, but currently they make up barely 10% of the total.  (Amazingly, only 30% of non-custodial mothers are ordered to pay child support at all, according to the Census Bureau.)  Once a critical mass of mothers starts having their federal benefits confiscated, being turned out into the street and going to prison, my guess is the need for justice for non-custodial parents will start to be heard.

At that point, one thing will need to be written into the laws on child support.  It is that non-custodial parents are entitled to at least a minimal standard of living, below which child support payments may not force them.  No father should be tossed into the street, penniless and in rags because of his children.  And no child should suffer the same fate because of its non-custodial parent.  A reasonable balance between what the child needs and what the parents need must be struck.  In doing so, courts must be ever mindful of the fact that, if the family were still together and the father lost his job or became disabled, everyone, not just the dad, would have to adjust to the new reality.

For now, the only new reality is that state and federal governments clearly believe that the child support system is too lenient on fathers who live on nothing but federal benefits. 

 

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