After her divorce two years ago, Kathy Danielson assumed she would receive child support for years from her ex-husband to help raise their two daughters. So she was shocked to learn when her case was reopened this summer that now she might have to pay him.
The reason: Minnesota launched a new child support formula last year, for the first time considering the income of both parents, not just the dad. It was hailed as a fairer system that would be more acceptable to embattled parents.
But women such as Danielson, who earn more than their ex-husbands, are watching with apprehension as a growing number of fathers seek to reopen their cases.
If the goal was to cut the acrimony among parents of the 255,000 children receiving support, it’s not working. Mothers’ rights advocates charge that the formula punishes custodial parents — nearly 90 percent of them women — who struggled to get ahead financially only to see their support reduced. "A lot of times men do get a bad deal," said Danielson, a nurse from Andover. "But it has to be fair for people like me, too. I pay for a house, cover medical and dental [insurance] and everyday expenses here. I work hard, a lot of double shifts, to make this happen."
Fathers’ rights groups say orders still are set too high and the formula is based on unrealistic child-rearing expenses.
With the economy struggling, and food and fuel costs rising, more noncustodial parents are seeking a financial break by reopening their cases.
"It’s worth a try." said Joe Tuthill, among a dozen men at a Minneapolis workshop on how to do just that. "I’m going broke."
New formula, new problems
For decades, courts set child support based on two criteria — the net income of the noncustodial parent (usually the dad) and the number of children. Most noncustodial parents paid 25 percent of their net income for one child and 30 percent for two children.
Now parents click on a Web-based "child support calculator” to figure out their likely payments, starting with both parents’ gross incomes, with deductions for parenting time and other child-rearing costs.
The theory is that if support orders seem more fair, parents will be more likely to pay. Parents who are deadbeats and/or financially strapped owe more than $1.8 billion to Minnesota children. It’s too early to know if the theory is panning out.
"In some cases, it’s a much more fair payment and doable for the parents,” said Mary Madden, a Minneapolis family law attorney and child support magistrate. "In some cases, it’s not."
For middle-class parents with similar incomes, such as a teacher and an accountant, the formula seems fair, said child support attorneys. But in cases where a father is earning $12 an hour and a mother is earning $22, the orders don’t seem to strike either party as fair.
"There’s a shock to a lot of people in that income range," said Julie Voigt, a Hennepin County child support magistrate. "The custodial parent says, ‘I need a break.’ The non-custodial parent says, ‘What am I supposed to live on?”’
Meanwhile, mothers who weren’t expected to work full time under the old system, now are expected to with few exceptions. When and how much income to impute to an underemployed or unemployed parent remains "problematic,” said family law attorney Pamela Waggoner.
Still, on the surface the new formula at least appears more fair than the old one, said lawyers, judges and magistrates. They describe how hard it was to defend the old system’s fairness when only one parent’s income was considered. The change lines Minnesota up with 37 states that consider both incomes.
"I’ve found that the process is as important as the outcome," said Patrick West-Hest, an assistant Ramsey County attorney. "Does everyone agree with it? No."
Both sides complain
Kim Tomek, a registered nurse from Lake Elmo, said she worked hundreds of holidays and double shifts to pay the basic needs of raising four children, now ages 15 to 24 and all living at home.
But when her child support order was reopened under the new formula, she was told to pay 72 percent of the total costs of raising the children. Her ex-husband was ordered to pay 28 percent. That meant her child support order of $702 a month was reduced to $369.
At a six-month review of that order, the magistrate decided to impute income from her former husband and the order was raised again to $708, she said. She warns parents to be vigilant if their case is reopened, "because I basically shot myself in the foot by working harder and harder.”
Tomek belongs to the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. The Twin Cities chapter’s founder, Jen Peterson of Cottage Grove, says she hears that mothers are getting less child support under the new system, compounding their financial struggles to raise children on their own.
But from her small office in a Little Canada strip mall, Molly Olson hears very different complaints. The founder of the Center for Parental Responsibility, a fathers’ rights group, said the new law is no fairer than the old one.
Basing the support on gross income, instead of net income, "is the wrong place to begin a formula,” Olson said. The amount of money that children allegedly need for support is way too high, she said.
"It’s all about lifestyle support, not the true cost of raising children,” she insisted. "And they [the court] are still calling parents voluntarily underemployed or unemployed, when they’ve simply just lost their jobs.”
Jack Ehrlich, a center member, is among those using the new law to reduce support. His payments dropped from $2,183 a month to $1,639, but he said that’s still "wildly high.”
A flood of appeals
When the law kicked in last year it applied only to new support orders. But starting this year, parents can try to modify existing orders if incomes or expenses could change the order at least $75.
Requests for changes spiked 25 percent the first six months of this year compared with the last six months of 2007, according to a Minnesota Supreme Court analysis.
Three days a week, parents such as Tuthill take a desk at workshops at the Family Justice Center in downtown Minneapolis to learn how to file their own orders. There are also crowds at the Child Support Self-Help office down the hall.
In Washington County, a hot-line recording tells parents that the volume of requests to reopen cases means it may be "several months before we can review your request."
Despite the instant discontent with the new system, some legal experts counsel patience. Tanya Manrique, the chief Hennepin County Family Court judge, said it’s simply too soon to tell if the new formula is an improvement.
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner agreed. "Just because someone isn’t getting as much money as they want or is paying more money than they want, doesn’t mean the system is unfair. The guidelines are about distributing resources to the maximum benefit of the child.”
Tuthill is keeping his fingers crossed that considering both incomes will give him a "more fair” order: "They should have been doing that in the first place.”