September 29, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The Nebraska commission that’s taking testimony on the state’s child support system and whether to reform it is in full swing and this fine article suggests reasonable changes have the backing of Senator Brad Ashford, an important plus for change (Omaha World Herald, 9/28/14).
Nationwide, the Office of Child Support Enforcement has long urged states to lower child support awards to levels non-custodial parents can actually pay. I know that sounds like an obvious thing to do, but the OCSE has been begging for years with little to show for its efforts. That’s because the same OCSE is hamstrung by federal regulations that reward states for setting support awards as high as possible. Every cent collected by states enters into the calculation whereby states are reimbursed by Washington. Lower awards would inevitably mean lower reimbursements to states.
Of course setting awards higher than non-custodial parents can pay has its downsides. Non-custodial parents (83% of whom are fathers) fall behind and arrears pile up. Interest on those arrears runs as high as 10% per year in some states making it all but impossible for many dads to pay everything they owe. That means states have to hire armies of attorneys to go after the countless NC parents who fall behind. Additional judges and court personnel add to the financial burden the states impose on themselves and of course jails to house those who fall irretrievably behind. Then there’s the fact that all states punish non-custodial parents further by revoking the various professional, occupational and drivers’ licenses of non-payers.
In short, we’ve created a system that’s designed as much to punish fathers as to support children. And that goal is based on the assumption that fathers are just deadbeats seeking any way they can to avoid supporting their kids. That of course is utterly untrue in the vast majority of cases as has been known at least since Dr. Sanford Braver published his studies of divorced fathers back in 1998. It turns out that Marian Heaney, an attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska sees the same thing.
Marian Heaney has recommended that the commission try to move the system away from punishing fathers, especially when they hit a rough patch financially through the loss of a job or a health care crisis. Heaney is managing attorney at the Omaha office of Legal Aid of Nebraska, which has helped about 320 noncustodial fathers obtain child support payment modifications over the past four years.
She estimated that 95 percent of the men who walk into her office want to support their children, but instead find themselves getting behind on payments they can’t make. And when that starts to happen, they sometimes drift further apart from their children.
Getting a modification order from a judge to temporarily reduce the payments can require a lawyer and takes a minimum of several months to complete, she added.
“We’ve built an entire myth of deadbeat dads around a minuscule percentage of fathers,” Heaney said. “These are people who work. They are not people looking to dodge their obligations.”
Basically, the entire system would be hugely simplified and made less expensive if we simply listened to what Heaney said and set child support awards based on (a) what it actually costs to raise a child and (b) what non-custodial parents can pay. Again, those are simple concepts, but ones that have eluded policy-makers over the decades despite ample information that should dictate reform.
That information includes obvious facts like the entire absence of any obstacle to custodial mothers’ holding remunerative employment. We should long ago have abandoned the outmoded notion that women can’t earn a living wage and therefore their former husbands should be saddled with their upkeep. But child support guidelines that increase as her income decreases only encourage her not to work and punish him for working more. Needless to say, discouraging working and earning shouldn’t be one of the aims or results of any child support regime. It may just be that Senator Ashford agrees.
The current guidelines fail to accurately reflect the expenses noncustodial parents face in trying to maintain a separate residence that provides the same standard of living for children that existed before divorce, said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the commission chairman.
The traditional assumption has been that noncustodial parents — the vast majority of whom are fathers — should pay the majority of all expenses because they have higher incomes. Such formulas seem to create a heavy financial burden, especially on middle-income and lower-income parents.
The system needs to recognize that parents have to maintain two households on the same incomes they were earning before divorce, the senator said.
“I think we have to get real about what’s going on in society today, and that is both parents work,” Ashford said.
Most important though is the fact that, if states enacted equal parenting legislation, child support awards could come down substantially. Each parent having the kids at least 35% of the time, would mean that everyday expenses could be divided between the two according to each parent’s time with the kids. Extraordinary expenses could be divided according to each parent’s ability to pay. The result would be easier to calculate, more equitable and less likely to drive one parent into prison due to an inability to pay. That would cut state bureaucracies and reduce court time and therefore court personnel. And of course it would keep both parents in children’s lives.
Lawyers wouldn’t like it because it would reduce litigation and therefore their fees, but everyone else would rejoice partly for that reason. It would also benefit children because they wouldn’t lose a parent in the divorce process and it would benefit parents. Fathers would see their kids more often and mothers would be able to spend more time working, earning and saving than they now can. Let’s not forget that an astonishing 40% + of single mothers with custody of children live in poverty. Take a substantial portion of their childcare duties and put them on Dad and we’d see that outrageous and unsustainable figure fall substantially.
What will Nebraska do? Its child support commission is due to make its report by the end of the year and after that, the guidelines would have to be altered to reflect its recommendations.
Nebraska of course is the same state that refused just last year to reform its parenting time orders and, without that, changes to child support levels may not mean much. The most sensible way to do so would be to equalize parenting time and adjust child support to fit the equal parenting model. Shared parenting advocates have vowed to be back with legislation next session and the same Senator Brad Ashford made encouraging noises last year that made some of us hope for real change.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
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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