Cordell & Cordell Co-Founder Joe Cordell has talked extensively about the many flaws of the modern child support system. In theory, the system should ensure that all necessary expenses needed to raise a child are covered, but in reality it often drives a wedge between families and creates excessive financial hardship for many well-intentioned fathers.
If you are a father going through divorce who is going to receive a child support order, it is best to educate yourself about how the system works. By learning about the common pitfalls that trip up many dads, you hopefully will maintain financial stability and avoid accumulating child support arrears for unpaid payments.
Here are three common misconceptions about the child support system.
Myth 1 Child support payments can only be spent on the child
This is one of the biggest gray areas when it comes to child support. Child support is supposed to provide for a child’s overall care and wellbeing, but what contributes to their “care and wellbeing” often is a point of contention.
Generally, extracurricular activities, uninsured medical expenses, and educational costs are not included in the basic child support amount unless specifically noted in the settlement agreement. Typically, child support is meant to cover food, clothing and shelter.
However, courts usually trust that parents receiving child support will use that money on items contributing to their children’s well-being and rarely get involved in how the support money is spent. Unless there is evidence that the child’s needs are being neglected, most parents paying child support have little control over how the payments are spent.
If you constantly find yourself spending money on basic items, such as clothes or toiletries, when your children stay with you then this could be a red flag that your ex is misusing your support on unnecessary items. This might be grounds for filing a motion for contempt, and it is a good idea to get in touch with your divorce attorney as soon as possible to review your legal options.
Fortunately, there are family law attorneys who focus on issues that impact men and fathers. The divorce lawyers of Cordell & Cordell have been fighting for fathers’ rights since the firm was founded in 1990. Cordell & Cordell divorce attorneys understand the concerns fathers have about paying child support and can explain what legal remedies are available if their child support payments are being misused.
Myth 2 Modifying child support is easy
There is a good chance that at some point it will be necessary to modify your child support order. This could be because your ex-spouse cohabits with another individual, or maybe your employment status changes and you can no longer afford the payments.
Regardless of the reason, modifying a child support order is no easy process. It typically involves going back to court and providing detailed information on past child support payments, and filling out dozens of documents.
Some fathers make the mistake of assuming that child support modifications happen automatically. Just because the factors that went into calculating your child support order change does not mean your payments change automatically.
A good example of this is what happens when a child reaches the age of emancipation. Common sense would dictate that once a child reaches the age of emancipation – age 18 in most states – the child support order terminates. However, depending on your state’s child support laws, you might need to file a supplemental petition to modify or terminate the child support obligation prior to the child turning 18 or graduating from high school.
The same is true if your or the other parent’s income changes. If there is a significant change in either you or your ex-spouse’s financial circumstances, it is important to be proactive.
The other thing to keep in mind is that child support modifications typically are not retroactive. Changes to child support orders usually only go back to the date the request for the change was filed. So if you are laid off on January 1 but do not file a motion to modify your child support order until February 1, then the court will most likely only consider changing the child support order back to the date you filed the motion.
One of the most important things fathers can do throughout the entire time they are paying child support is to keep accurate records of child support payments, medical reimbursements, daycare expenses, etc. Failing to do so can come back to haunt you if your ex ever denies receiving the child support payments you have made.
A good way to ensure you have accurate records is by taking advantage of state agency income withholding. This is probably the easiest and most reliable way to keep consistent records of your child support payments. You also can try setting up an automatic payment through your bank that provides an automatic memo field showing the payment was for child support.
It also is extremely important to get signed receipts from the other parent for your child support payments and other payments like daycare or medical reimbursements. Make sure to keep those records organized and accessible so you can easily find them when you need them.
The more accurate and thorough your recordkeeping, the more likely they will be able to be admitted as evidence. The rules of evidence can be complicated so it is important to consult with an attorney to help you prepare your case.
Myth 3 The child support system keeps the best interests of families in mind
Theoretically, the child support system is designed to financially support families who have gone through divorce. Ideally, such a system would be set up to put a child’s best interests above everything else. Unfortunately, that is just not the case.
The modern child support system was established by a bipartisan policy reform 40 years ago based on outdated stereotypes in which the father was the household’s sole breadwinner. Although more women are in the workforce than ever before, the child support system has been slow to catch up. Many dads still feel a stigma about asking for child support even when their spouse makes significantly more than them.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the system is the manner in which it is unduly harsh on low-income fathers. With 29 percent of families in the child support system living below the federal poverty line, many fathers just do not have the financial means to make their payments. If a dad goes through a rough patch and misses a couple payments, things can get real messy.
If too many child support arrears accumulate, the father can be sent to prison. While in prison, his child support payments do not necessarily stop automatically, and some states even consider incarceration voluntary unemployment so the debt continues to snowball.
This child support debt has the two-pronged effect of ruining the dad’s finances and driving him out of his child’s life. Research shows that men with outstanding child support debt are less involved in their children’s lives.
The system’s punitive nature is driven by the age-old “deadbeat dad” myth that really dates back to a 1986 CBS report titled “The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America.” The report featured a New Jersey father of six who bragged about skipping out on child support payments.
Not long after the report aired, Congress passed stricter child support enforcement practices, and that trend continued in the ’90s with President Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act, which gave the government even more power to collect child support payments.
Although there certainly are irresponsible fathers out there, research indicates there are far more who want to do whatever they can to support their children. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office Report, 66 percent of all child support not paid by fathers is due to an inability to afford the payments.
Many of those dads who miss payments still try to find ways to do what they can to support their children. A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that many of the most economically disadvantaged fathers still tried to provide in-kind support such as baby products, clothing, food, and other non-monetary contributions.
“I know most of these men are not bad people; they love their kids, they want what is best for their kids, they want to be there for their kids,” Mr. Cordell said.