"Optimism is America's birthright.... There is no social problem Americans dare not attack. No problem, that is, except one: about marriage, and marriage alone, we despair." -- Maggie Gallagher
"Money often costs too much." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Child Support means payment of money by one divorced parent to the other divorced parent, theoretically for the purpose of allowing the children to have a standard of living as close as possible to the pre-divorce standard of living. In the days before No-Fault divorce when divorces were relatively rare, it made sense. It still makes sense in some cases, such as when a wealthy father voluntarily abandons his family and wife in order to marry a younger women (or vice versa). But for the most part, the vast child-support bureaucracy and the current laws defy common sense. Child support money doesn't have to be used for anything actually related to children, and often isn't. Also, child support is very seriously gender-imbalanced: 84% of it is paid by fathers and only 16% by mothers.
Amounts of child support
The exact calculations of child support amounts differ widely between states. In general, the parent who is awarded primary custody will receive money from the other parent, usually docked from paychecks by the state, with the amount based on several factors. One of them is the difference in incomes between the two parents. Existing payments of health insurance and various living expenses of the children also makes a difference. In most states, the percentage of custody has a bearing on child support amounts as well – a parent who has 40% partial custody will pay less than one who sees their children only once every other weekend. Of course, the fault for the divorce is not considered. Most states have websites which provide calculators to estimate child-support. It can be adjusted periodically as the parent's incomes change or if the paying parent loses his/her job but those changes are often slow in coming.
Unlike federal tax exemptions, the amounts are not the same for all children. Child support for upper-class children is far more expensive than child support for lower-class children. This is based on the concept that upper-class children are used to an upper-class lifestyle and should not have to suffer because of the decision of their parent(s). That concept is no longer valid, because most divorces are unilateral and the non-custodial parent is often no more responsible for the divorce than the children are.
Usually child support stops at about age 18 and does not include college. Children of divorce are much less likely to go to college than children of married parents.
Child support as punishment
In many states, child support is conceived not just a method to provide for children financially, but rather as punishment for "deadbeat dads". The money is almost always paid from the father to the mother – partially because women usually get custody, and partially because woman are more likely to be stay-at-home parents if young children or babies are involved. Usually it is large amounts of money of $1000 per month or more based on pre-divorce family income – usually far more than the child really needs. It could be up to 2/3 of the parent's income. The use of child support is completely at the discretion of the custodial parent and often isn't used for anything at all related to the kids. Reporting of child expenses and use of the funds is almost never required. Usually child support money has heavy interest rates for back-due payments. Usually it is enforced very aggressively by state agencies which often exceed the enforcement of criminal laws. Parents who fall too far behind in their payments for whatever reason – even being unable to afford excessive amounts of payments because they lost their jobs – can end up in jail.
As Stephen Baskerville explains in his book Taken into Custody: “A parent whose children are taken away by a family court is only at the beginning of his troubles. The next step comes as he is summoned to court and ordered to pay as much as much as two-thirds or even more of his income as 'child support'“
The stereotype of a Deadbeat Dad
The general public supports these draconian measures because of a stereotype that lots of men get women pregnant or even see their children as babies and then leave just because they don't want any responsibility. The general public doesn't understand No-Fault divorce, and doesn't know that 75% of all divorces are filed by women and that women are usually awarded custody. The “deadbeat dad" who voluntarily abandoned his children is largely just a bogeyman created to scare up money for child support enforcement. As Baskerville says, “Contrary to popular belief (and centuries of common-law precedent), child support today has nothing to do with fathers abandoning their children, reneging on their marital vows, or even agreeing to a divorce. It is automatically assessed on all non-custodial parents, even those divorced over their objections and who loose their children through no legal fault or agreement of their own. It is an entitlement, in other words, for all divorcing mothers and one coerced not from taxpayers (although they pay too) but directly from involuntarily divorced spouses. A legally unimpeachable parent minding his own business can lose not only his children but his property and earnings and can be incarcerated without trial through 'no fault' of his own.”
“Like custody, in other words, child support has nothing to do with justice. On the other hand, it is a punitive measure, enforced with police, courts, and incarceration..”
The fathers are more likely to be "absent" because of losing custody in a court order than because of voluntary abandonment. Several studies, such as ones by Dr. Sanford Braver of Arizona State University, bear this out.
No-Fault for divorce but not for Child Support
The child support legal framework makes less sense as No-Fault makes divorce more common. In the old days, perhaps there might have been a little justification for concern about "deadbeat dads". But now that all 50 states have No-Fault divorce, this stereotype is inexcusable. If we really believe that divorce is not anybody fault, then it logically follows that both parents should equally make sacrifices to support the children. The plaintiff should have to make sacrifices in his/her lifestyle if deciding to divorce – it should not be only the defendant who has to make sacrifices. And if we really believe in No-Fault that nothing is ever anybody's fault, then parents should not be severely punished for being short on child support payments.
Child custody and child support battles
Often child support amounts are closely tied to child custody schedules. Usually child custody will need to be decided by courts before child support can be decided, and this will be a schedule of which days, weeks, or months the child(ren) will spend with each parent. From that, custody percentages can be calculated. If the custody is split 50-50, then the parent with more income might be ordered to pay money each month to the parent with less income (but also considering payments for health insurance, etc.). A parent who has less than 50% custody usually will not receive any child support money even if he or she has less income. But if a parent has much more than 50% custody or has 100% custody – for example if domestic-violence charges were upheld – then usually the child support will be much more. In some cases, it could be over half of the paying parent's income.
This makes custody battles even more important and even more bitter and divisive. As Judith Wallerstein states in Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, “This linking of money to time introduce another agenda into custody negotiations, one that is unrelated to the child's interests but often very important to parents and their advisers. An attorney would be seriously remiss if this economic difference were not discussed with his or her client. Bluntly stated, the more time you can get the child to stay at your houses, the less child support you'll have to pay.”
Hopefully, as knowledge of No-Fault divorce and the gender bias of family courts becomes more well known, the concept of using child support to punish "deadbeat dads" will disappear. Also, child support should really be money to support children, not just a financial incentive for stay-at-home parents to get rid of their spouses. Fortunately, some states have made reforms child support laws in recent years.