The Real Face of Child Support

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We do see examples of both in the data and note that one virtue of the formal system is that it allows the custodial parent to retain control. Discussions of in-kind support also evoke distinctive language. In-kind contributions are often made in direct response to what children want or need. A second theme associated with in-kind support also a prevalent, but not a predominant, theme in describing informal support is provision. Child support relies, at least some degree, on the goodwill and cooperation of the fathers and mothers who are eligible to participate.

The interviews we conducted leave no doubt that noncustodial fathers prefer informal arrangements for supporting their children. The analyses also hint at what might lie beneath the vexing finding that informal arrangements seem to contribute more to child well-being and that participation in the formal child support system could be producing unintentional corrosive effects.

The question we need to confront is, what would it take to make child support a truly family-building institution? Focusing exclusively on securing economic resources for children—the worthy purpose of the formal child support system—is not enough to achieve that goal. Before I turn to policy recommendations, allow me to propose some criteria for intervention. Along with economic resources, whatever policy solutions we adopt ought to lend dignity to participants. Thus, a holistic effort to promote mobility from poverty should be guided by these three principles: economic resources, power and autonomy, and respect in the community.

Po, powell, and I are members of the partnership.

Flaws in the system

To advance the goal of ensuring that kids receive sufficient economic resources, while also ensuring that fathers have sufficient resources to give and are motivated to do so, we need to make it feasible for every noncustodial parent, no matter how limited their circumstances, to participate. But we need to go further. We need to find a way to engage fathers with very low incomes or very unstable employment.

Mechanisms for real-time modification are needed. And—as I will suggest later—alternative kinds of support should count. Equally important is to deal head-on with the difficulties that men with children by multiple partners face—a condition that almost inevitably leads to unsustainable awards.

Consider the case of Texas, which employs a percentage-of-income formula one of three formulas states use to set child support awards. No state that I know of has figured out a way to deal with this dilemma. But as Figure 1 illustrates, a large number of fathers and children are in this situation. The goal here is not to let fathers off the hook, but to encourage more fathers to pay—and more mothers to sign up for the program—by making it feasible for every father to participate. Second, how do we meet the goal of supporting children without stripping fathers of power and autonomy, as the formal system now does?

Join the Discussion

I argue that we should make formal support more like informal support, which stokes positive feelings of power and autonomy. Minnesota offers an example of how this can be done. His docket was limited to the toughest cases, those where the father had denied paternity and paternity had to be established in order to set an award. Those who voluntarily established paternity—the majority—had their awards adjudicated by an administrative judge. Then, in a final meeting with a mediator, the parents came together and were guided in crafting a tailored parenting agreement they both felt was reasonable and served the best interests of the child.

These agreements then went back to the court for approval. Strikingly, two-thirds of parents involved completed the classes, a very high figure for any intervention. More than half completed cooperative parenting agreements together, and all but four did so with additional assistance from the courts. Subsequent analysis showed that participation increased visitation. When asked about the total number of hours per month the father spent or visited with their child, intervention mothers reported an increase of Clearly, more experimentation is needed, but these are encouraging signs.

Helping parents build co-parenting skills may be especially important given empirical findings cited earlier showing that the receipt of child support can actually have a corrosive effect on child well-being. We cannot be sure, but it is likely that the effect is due to the fact that noncustodial parents do not usually end up in the formal system unless, or until, co-parenting has broken down.

Couple conflict, and not formal child support itself, is the likely cause of harm to the child. If we want to ensure that children will benefit from participation in the formal system, improving co-parenting skills should be a central goal. Plus, letting parents have a role in setting the parenting agreement should promote compliance. In addition, joint custody should be considered unless either parent can demonstrate good cause.

Currently, in nearly a third of the states, an unmarried mother is given sole custody even if the father establishes paternity. But among divorced parents, joint custody has grown rapidly in recent years, both legal where parents share decision-making and physical where children live with both parents. There is no reason why these two groups—one more likely to be middle class and white, and the other disproportionately working class or poor and nonwhite—should be treated differently.


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If the custodial parent agrees, we should allow informal cash given directly to the mother but especially in-kind such as payment of the child care bill, or the purchase of school supplies contributions to be recognized. Fathers commonly voiced fears that their contributions would be siphoned off by the mother herself, or worse, by her new boyfriend. It was common for men to say this reduced their motivation, or even made them unwilling to pay. Allowing in-kind contributions to count may be especially important for very low earners or those with very unstable work.

Late or Very Late

For such fathers, services such as household or yard maintenance, not just goods, should be allowed to count as support if the mother agrees. About two-thirds of states already have an adjustment for parenting time in their child support guidelines, an idea we can build on. The goal is to have every noncustodial parent participate in a system that obligates them to contribute but also recognizes contributions in a variety of forms. Small contributions are often viewed in low-income neighborhoods as placeholders for larger contributions that men hope to make later on, when their circumstances improve.

Finally, we should remember that the original goal of the child support system when it was founded in was to reimburse the government for welfare costs. In some cases, a government backlog can lead to long delays before your process is complete. Similarly, LegalZoom does not guarantee the results or outcomes of the services rendered by our legal plan attorneys or attorney-assisted products. Problems like these are beyond our control and are not covered by this guarantee. Since we're dedicating time and effort to your legal document preparation, our guarantee only covers satisfaction issues caused by LegalZoom - not changes to your situation or your state of mind.

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Behind on child support? 9 ways you could be made to pay

What would you like to talk about? Legal plans Browse attorney directory Legal document review Speak with an attorney. Check order status Contact us Visit our resource center. Check order status Dashboard Sign out Sign in. Freelance writer. Financial Setbacks? Be Proactive in Seeking Help Because of these potentially harsh penalties, those having difficulty making payments are advised to do whatever they can to ensure timely payment. Payment Delinquencies Should Not Affect Visitation Rights For the parent receiving child support payments, it's important to keep in mind that visitation rights are entirely separate from child support obligations.

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The truth about child support

As anyone who's gone through a divorce can tell you, the process is rarely easy. Tensions run high, and couples often make poor decisions in the heat of the moment. Here are the top 10 tips on what to avoid when filing for divorce.


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If your startup is an LLC, how should you pay yourself—as an employee or as a member? All the forms LLCs can take mean the answer is complicated. When child support payments fall far behind, and attempts to collect go unanswered or are unsuccessful, a court may deem the person in contempt.

Child Support in the Age of Complex Families | Issues in Science and Technology

This can result in legal action including incarceration. In other words, a person can indeed wind up in jail for not paying court ordered child support payments. When child support is not paid, the ones who suffer the most are the children who are supposed to benefit from the money.

People who fall behind on child support payments should have a close look at the results of their actions, and should think less about possible legal repercussions and instead examine what the non-payment is doing to their children.