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By Roger F. Gay 

July 5, 2002

It might seem obvious that child support awards should be adjusted in recognition of the time children spend with each parent. While children are in the care of a parent receiving child support, the other parent is sending money to help cover costs. When the parent paying child support is taking care of the children the situation is reversed. That parent assumes direct responsibility for costs, relieving the parent that normally receives the child support payment.

When states began using fixed formulae for determining child support awards, known as child support guidelines, the door was nearly slammed shut on reducing orders in recognition of divided parenting time. Reopening the case on visitation and shared custody credits is the subject of an article in the current quarterly issue of the international journal IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD (R) Forum.

The article, High Child Support Awards Deny Contact between Fathers and Their Children summarizes results of research by Project for the Improvement of Child Support Litigation Technology (PICSLT) on the mathematics of crediting visitation and shared parenting. The research included derivation of credit equations accounting for two parental households and explored the economic effects of using various crediting formulae.

PICSLT first looked at the question of visitation credits when state-wide formulae for determining child support awards were just about to go into effect. Review of federally funded technical advice on design of child support guidelines indicated that more research was needed. Government consultants either ignored visitation and shared parenting or presented recommendations that minimized the possibility of properly adjusting child support orders. The resulting application of those recommendations has led to ludicrous results.

Arizona State University psychology professor Sanford Braver discusses the problem in his landmark book Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths. He presents an example of a case in New York in which a father was ordered to pay more than $12,000 per year for support of his two children. (page 72) There was no great disparity in income between the parents and they spent nearly equal time caring for their children. If the shared parenting arrangement changed slightly the legal definition of each parent would have been reversed and the mother would have been ordered to pay about $10,000 per year to the father. The difference of $22,000 per year depended on only one overnight stay per week.

Braver followed the example with commentary that triggered the new research by PICSLT. Reducing the amount of an award would seem an obvious benefit to payers (mostly fathers) and provide support for the time children spend with them. On the other hand, wouldn't this lead mothers to battle against visitation in court if it results in loss of income? Would some fathers fight for more visitation merely to reduce the amount of child support they are ordered to pay?

PICSLT research is not psychology. How parents actually behave in court and what their motives might be are subjects not directly addressed. A mathematical "design study" was carried out to determine where the economic incentives lie and whether they can be eliminated. There is good news and bad for supporters of shared parenting and non-custodial parents who want to spend time with their children.

The good news is that the mathematics has been developed that can eliminate the perverse incentives. Adjusting a properly calculated child support award in consideration of the direct contributions of both parents can make things come out even. This might seem obvious, but it is not as simple as it seems. There are details to be considered. What happens for example when child support provides part of the rent money for a low income custodial parent? Rent is not prorated for the amount of time children are there. The design study adjusts for "fixed expenses."

There are limits to what coming out even can mean. Some parents cannot fully support themselves and their children in two households. Arrangements need to be realistic. Unless there is an additional source of support the adjustment might only be for a child's food during visitation. Coming out even might mean that $5 per visit spent on food can be balanced by a $5 reduction in child support. A father who is really strapped however, might find that essential.

Adjusting a properly calculated child support award for the direct contributions of both parents can make things come out even. The bad news is that child support is not calculated properly. Ever since federal reforms took effect requiring the use of fixed formulae, award levels have been too high in an overwhelming number of cases. Guideline designers overcompensated for fixed expenses and then did so in a variety of ways. If orders are adjusted in proportion to parenting time it is obvious that recipients would be giving up a margin of profit in addition to fair compensation for expenses.

On average, child support awards are two to two and a half times what they should be. This means that in total non-custodial parents in the United States could be overpaying by somewhere between $15-20 billion annually because their court orders tell them to.

Things have really worked backwards. In the 1980s and 1990s laws were passed and procedures put in place without sufficient research and debate beforehand. Parents and children have been living through a vast and unnecessary experiment at their expense. "Deadbeat dad" politics even blocked consideration of the existing wisdom gained through hundreds of years of making child support awards. The federal reforms politicized child support to such an extent that it seems literally to require an Act of Congress or a Supreme Court ruling to get settlement on these issues. A parent can no longer get a proper adjustment by walking into a courtroom and saying "look judge, you know this would be fair."

Perhaps the most important contribution PICSLT research has made is to show that these issues can be objectively analyzed. There is no need to force divorced and never-married parents into the topsy-turvy world of politics in addition to struggling with the often difficult personal financial and emotional issues they face. A lot of basic questions can be settled in a scientific way. It is inappropriate and unethical to subject a quarter of the population to a bizarre social policy experiment and insurmountable political hurtles to fair treatment in the courts. We just need to do the math and set things up so that the courts can do their job properly.

Two detailed papers on the mathematics of visitation and shared parenting credits and the detailed design study are available at the PICSLT website.

The Alimony Hidden in Child Support is a related article in Fathering Magazine.

Roger F. Gay - All Rights Reserved



Roger F. Gay is a professional analyst and director of Project for the Improvement of Child Support Litigation Technology