Cordell & Cordell Principal Partner Joseph Cordell recently spoke with 700WLW-Cincinnati about many of the problems pervading the child support system and family courts.
As Mr. Cordell noted, rather than providing support for children, the system often drives a wedge between families and creates unnecessary financial hardship for many well-intentioned parents.
Here are five ways in which the system fails families.
The system creates debtors prisons.
Twenty-nine percent of the families in the child support system live below the federal poverty line. This makes completing payments a challenge for many parents.
The situation gets even worse if a parent loses their job. Child support doesn’t stop during unemployment. That debt starts to accumulate and it can suddenly become impossible to catch up.
The court also has the power to say it thinks an individual is capable of finding a meaningful job and a parent can be incarcerated if they continue failing to make payments. Once imprisoned, the arrears continue to accumulate and suddenly they’re stuck in a never-ending cycle.
The system financially destroys the support system of parents who can’t pay.
In his interview, Mr. Cordell described a cynical attitude that many judges hold in regards to enforcing child support. Their belief is that once a parent who claims to be unable to pay child support is faced with a prison sentence, the money suddenly shows up.
That is often the case, Mr. Cordell conceded, but not because they were hiding the money. The money often comes from friends or family who are now forced to take on a financial hardship they didn’t deserve.
“Incidentally, debtor prisons were founded on the same assumption that you send the guy to jail and the money will show up,” Mr. Cordell said. “Interestingly, the money does appear, but it appeared by his loved ones having to mortgage everything they have or to work 12-hour days to get him out of prison. That’s not a system I think we want to emulate.”
The system fails to acknowledge economic realities of divorce.
The formulas used in most states to calculate child support is founded on the policy goal of preserving for the child the same standard of living that would have existed if there weren’t a divorce.
Of course, providing as much financial support for the child as possible is ideal, but the reality is that divorce creates some economic hardships that make maintaining the exact quality of life impossible in many instances.
The fact is, there are now two households being supported by the same combined income, and the non-custodial parent is shouldered with that additional financial burden.
“The way this would happen in the real world if the couple had stayed together and hit hard times or if we’d go through a recession is that the child would make the same sacrifices that the parents make,” Mr. Cordell said. “But with this policy aspiration that the children are not to experience a reduction in child support, it’s entirely on the shoulders and the backs of these guys.”
The system deincentivizes being a productive member of the economy.
Another characteristic of the child support system is that any source of income is to be considered in the child support determination.
That means the more money you make, a larger and larger share of every dollar will be going to pay child support. In many cases, the mother has remarried, so that income will be benefitting her new husband as well.
“It’s a system with entirely the wrong incentives,” Mr. Cordell said.
The system overemphasizes financial contribution while underscoring other types of support.
Perhaps the system’s greatest flaw is that it places an enormous emphasis on providing financial support for a child while essentially ignoring the other types of support parents can provide.
The deadbeat dad myth still looms very large in society, but recent research has shown that even the poorest of fathers try to find other ways to help raise their children.
Financial support is important, but so is having an involved father as that can play a key role in the healthy development of children. Child support debt often pushes fathers out of their children’s lives to the detriment of everyone – a fact Kimberly Seals Allers recognized when she decided to forgive her ex-husband of nearly $40K in child support arrears.
An outdated gender stereotype pervades the system that mothers are solely responsible for raising the child while fathers serve as the breadwinner. But times are changing as women are continuing to make professional strides and fathers are contributing to child raising more than ever.
There are also numerous agencies that help enforcing the right to child support, but when visitation is denied dads often find themselves on their own.
“A guy can’t pick up a phone and have some official go to work on his behalf,” Mr. Cordell said. “What the guy has to do is he has to go to a lawyer’s office and write a check for three- to five-thousand dollars. Then a petition is filed and over a period of months it’s going to work its way through the slow course of court systems and then he’ll probably get a day in court maybe three to six months later.
“… Does he even bother when he’s looking at that sort of road in front of him?”