A new study of
child support has concluded that most states' child
support guidelines are poorly designed, inequitable, and
in need of reform. California's guidelines, which
are among the highest in the nation, exemplify this
inequity, and often place such privations on noncustodial
parents that they are unable to remain a meaningful part
of their children's lives.
"Child Support Guidelines and the Equalization of Living
Standards", was conducted by psychology professors Sanford
Braver and David Stockburger, and will appear in the
soon-to-be-released book The Law and Economics of Child
researchers conclude that nationwide "under current child
support guidelines, the majority of custodial parents
currently have higher standards of living than their
matched noncustodial parents", and that in some situations
this inequity is "dramatic".
study of California child support obligors conducted by
the Urban Institute reflects the effects of these high
guidelines, particularly as they impact low-income and
minority men. According to the report, only 25% of
California's $14.4 billion child support arrearage will be
collected over the next decade, not because the debt is
owed by high living divorced dads who won't pay, but
because the support amounts demanded of noncustodial
parents are often wildly unrealistic. The average
arrears amount owed is $3,000 higher than the median
annual earnings of employed child support debtors.
Those in the poorest category have a child support debt
amounting to their full net income for seven and a half
years. Over a quarter of the arrears total
represents interest due on principal.
Stockburger conclude that the guidelines have become
tilted against noncustodial parents in large part because
they fail to consider the significant tax benefits
accorded only to custodial parents. Whereas child
support income is tax-free to the custodial parent,
noncustodial parents must pay federal, state, and local
income tax, as well as social security or FICA, on the
money they pay in support. Also, in most cases only
the custodial parent can claim the $3,050 per child tax
exemption. Additional custodial parent tax
advantages include: the Child Tax Credit (worth up
to $1,000 per child); the Earned Income Credit (up to
$4,204, with two children); deductions for school tuition
and fees (up to $3,000 per return); the Child Care Credit
(worth up to $1,050 per child); and a lower tax rate for
"head of household" filing status.
the federal tax code treats divorced and unwed
fathers--who are often paying 40 or 50 percent of their
net income in child support--as if they are childless
and Stockburger point out that the current guidelines and
the studies upon which they were based ignore the many
child-related costs borne by noncustodial parents,
including transportation, entertainment, and food during
visitation, as well as money spent on clothes and
out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses. And
because California has been extremely permissive in
allowing custodial parent move-aways, noncustodial parents
often shoulder sizable burdens in travel expenses.
If fact, the
researchers probably understate the child support
inequities noncustodial fathers face. Because the
child support system is so inflexible, most fathers who
lose their jobs or suffer wage cuts are not able to get
downward modifications on their child support. These
fathers end up paying support based on past wage levels
which do not reflect their current, diminished earnings.
while California is generally enthusiastic about enforcing
child support orders, its courts are indifferent at best
to enforcing noncustodial parents' visitation
rights--rights which studies show are frequently violated.
Noncustodial parents must pay out of pocket for legal
representation to enforce these rights. Few family
issues are as heartbreaking as the common scenario of a
noncustodial father paying so much of his income in child
support that he cannot even afford to go to court to fight
for his right to see his children.
California fathers who fall in arrears on their child
support suffer punitive measures, such as suspension or
loss of driver's licenses, passports, and business
licenses. Others struggle to stay out of jail or
feel it's hopeless and disappear. Most of these men
aren't deadbeats, but instead fathers who worked hard to
support their children both before and after their
breakups with their children's mothers.
financial support, but they also need their parents' love
and emotional support. What rationale is there for
California's child support guidelines if they serve to
harm or drive away one of the two people who most love a
This column first appeared in the Daily Breeze
Jeff M. Leving
also contributed to this article. He
is one of America's most prominent family law attorneys.
He is the author of
Fathers' Rights: Hard-hitting and
Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute.
Visit his website at