Many non-custodial parents complain about the way that child support affects their wallet — and it does, significantly — but the pain of child support can often be much more than financial.
Alphonso Gibbs, father of one, of Baltimore, Md., knows the high cost of child support all too well. Fourteen years ago, when he and his wife divorced and he started paying child support for his son, meeting the amount — close to 30 percent of his gross pay — each month was “challenging to say the least,” he says.
Gibbs and his ex-wife divorced in California, the same state they were married in 17 years ago. But after the divorce, Gibbs’ ex-wife moved to Georgia to earn a law degree, he said. “I was paying her California money while she was living in Georgia.”
Child support calculations differ by state, but most states use a standard formula, calculating each parent’s income and then taking a portion of the non-custodial parent’s income and calling it child support. While he isn't upset at his ex, Gibbs has been consistently disappointed by the way he feels the system favors her. “I am guilty until proven innocent in every way,” he says. “Meanwhile, she is always innocent. No matter what she says.”
These built in incentives for the “winner” in the legal system are what Robert Ferrer, board member of the Children’s Rights Council of Illinois
(CRC-IL), a non-custodial parents and children’s rights organization in Illinois that advocates for equal parenting time, calls “carrots.” And they only add to the animosity in any divorce, he says.
Gibbs was lucky. Unlike many non-custodial parents, he was able to get his child support order modified once his ex-wife graduated from law school based on money she could potentially earn — a fact that made Gibbs’ case unique, says Ferrer. “According to the Urban Institute (an institute investigating and analyzing U.S. social and economic problems and issues), less than one in 20 non-custodial parents seeking modifications in their child support — many for reasonable reasons such as job loss, change or incapacitation — is approved,” says Ferrer,
“The courts judge parents on their ability to make money, not necessarily on the amount they make,” says Ferrer. In Gibbs’ case, this fact was helpful, but in the vast majority of cases, the non-custodial parent — most often the father -- is not able to modify their support order even with legitimate and well-documented reasons.
Child support is based on the policy that both parents are obligated to support their children. Typically, visitation rights are awarded to non-custodial parents, but most often one parent is awarded custody, rendering that parent the “primary caregiver” and the one who received child support. Meanwhile, the non-custodial parent is obligated to pay a proportion of the costs involved in raising the child.
This number is calculated by the court and varies state by state. In Massachusetts, for example, a non-custodial parent can expect to forfeit one-third of his gross pay in child support for one child, regardless of visitation, regardless of the salary of the custodial parent.
Child support collection has become quite sophisticated with automatic wage garnishment and many enforcement incentives. Non-custodial parents who find themselves in arrearage are subject to loss of their passport, driver’s license and car. They are unable to apply for loans or obtain a passport. But even with the new systems, in its last report in 2004, the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement reported that the total amount of unpaid child support debt is $102 billion. On the plus side, the agency says it has “collected and distributed $239 billion in child support” in the past 30 years, according to its report.
And while that statistic seems good, there are many factors beyond being a “deadbeat” that might cause them to fall behind, says Ferrer. “But those often do not matter,” he says. “The major issue is how society looks at dads,” he says. “If Dad is looked at almost exclusively as a financial parent then we miss out on the equally important areas.”
For many fathers, the sheer amount of money coupled with the lack of adequate time with their children in the “standard visitation model” (every other weekend and four hours on Wednesday), causes disengagement, says Ferrer. And the research supports this. “Studies have shown that there is a correlation between father’s involvement and support,” Ferrer says.
“Men are going to have a lot of problems if they think they are spending too much or the money is going to things other than the child,” says Professor Geoffrey Greif
of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has written several books on the topic of single fatherhood and divorce. According to Greif, a support order interpreted as “unreasonable” by the father can undermine the relationship between father and child. “When fathers are seen only as a paycheck, that tends to make them feel less comfortable as nurturers,” he says.