ARTICLES ASK DIANA ABOUT

The "Deadbeat Parent":
Myths & Realities

We've all read the dismal stories about ex-spouses who default on their support payments. But has anyone thought to ask why these people aren't paying?


The headline reads: "Deadbeat Dads/Moms." The article then goes on to inform you of how they refuse to pay child support and how they live in luxury while their children go without food, clothing, and the bare necessities to live. Is this depiction accurate? If so, how often does it happen? And -- perhaps most importantly -- why does it happen?

Although the answers to these questions will vary depending on the situation, it does appear that the majority of so-called "deadbeats" default on their support payments for one of two reasons: they can't afford to pay them, or they have little or no contact with their children and the parental bond has eroded. According to San Diego lawyer-mediator Georgine Brave, "Many people ordered to pay child support feel that they can't manage financially if they pay the court-ordered amount. Often, both parents work to maintain one household. When they separate, there isn't enough money to support two households. So the payer -- most frequently the husband -- has to pay child support by the guidelines, and he finds that he can't pay his other bills. He doesn't realize that child support comes first."

"Depending on how equalization of payment is calculated, child support may be set at an unrealistic level," adds Paul Mineiro, the president of Fathers Are Capable Too (FACT), a Toronto-based fathers' rights organization. "Debt incurred during the divorce, or debts prior to the divorce, are mostly placed under the non-custodial parent's name. Creditors chase non-custodial parents for the money owed. However, the non-custodial parent's income hasn't increased, and where there were two incomes to cover these debts, now there is only one. Not only does the parent have to pay the debts incurred, but also for a new home or living arrangements as well as child support."

The custody link
Statistically, payment of child support is linked to custody and/or frequent visitations. The most recent US Census Bureau data shows that fathers with joint custody pay their child support 90% of the time; fathers with visitation pay theirs 79.1% of the time; and fathers with neither joint custody nor visitation pay support only 44% of the time. These statistics point to the second reason why most non-custodial parents don't pay child support. Los Angeles lawyer Fern Salka claims that non-custodial parents "generally don't pay because they feel that they have either too little control or a lack of connection with their children." She adds that non-custodial parents are often "angry about the amount of spousal or child support they have to pay."

Another reason is that it may be easier for a judge to make a decision based on finances (child support) rather than on emotional issues (custody/visitation). Legally, child support and custody are always treated separately, although non-custodial parents tend to link the two -- emotionally and financially. "Child support agencies have no legal jurisdiction over enforcement of visitation or custody," says Kay Kullen, a spokeswoman for the National Child Support Enforcement Association. "However, each state child support agency has instituted access and visitation programs that link parents to resources that can assist in the resolution of visitation issues."

 

Separating the Issues
Although some divorcing parents try to combine the two issues, the law says that child support and access are independent covenants. And rightly so: otherwise, an abusive parent could refuse to pay support unless the custodial parent allowed the children to spend time with him or her.

Gene is a 35-year-old man who has been wrangling with his ex-wife about child support for and access to their eight-year-old daughter, Katy, for the past three years. "I'm in and out of court all the time," he says bitterly. "I've already spent more on legal fees than I would have had to spend to support Katy to age 18 -- about $200,000." Gene stopped paying child support 15 months after his ex, Mary, stopped allowing him to see their daughter. "She hauls me into court regarding payment, and I haul her into court regarding access. I was a great father -- she denies access only to yank my chain. Do you really think it's in Katy's best interests that she grow up without knowing her father?"

Probably not, but is it in her best interests to grow up without adequate financial support? Studies show that the children who adjust best to divorce are those who remain in close contact with both parents, as long as those parents are not in constant conflict. Assuming that Gene and Mary can agree to resolve their issues with each other -- through counseling or mediation, for instance -- Gene is correct in thinking that it would be in Katy's best interests to have regular, positive contact with her father. But until that happens, Gene must separate his anger at Mary from his obligations to Katy and start making child-support payments again.

Old arguments, old hurts, and anger from the past can cause couples to behave like Gene and Mary, each of whom is completely uninterested in trying to see things from the other's point of view. Each would rather spend the next decade fighting in court than admit any responsibility for creating and maintaining the deadlock they're in now.

Even though child support and access are independent covenants, disgruntled custodial and non-custodial parents do have a few avenues to help them resolve their disputes. In 1997, funds were allocated to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and territories for a new grant program as part of the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program. Activities include mediation, counseling, education, development of parenting plans, visitation enforcement, and development of guidelines for visitation and alternative custody arrangements. However, activities vary from state to state.

How is the money spent?
The resentment, hurt, and mistrust generated by an acrimonious divorce can cause reluctance or refusal to pay spousal or child support. Sometimes, the payer believes the support is being spent frivolously or that it isn't really being used for the kids. How the money is spent is a frequently asked question.

Liz does pay her child support for their two kids to her ex-husband, Joe, but she's getting increasingly upset about the way he seems to be spending it. "Last year, he took trips to the Caribbean and Europe, and our children are walking around looking like street urchins, with ragged and ill-fitting clothes and sneakers that are more hole than shoe," she fumes. "When they come to visit me, I end up buying them clothes and toiletries even though I'm now on a very limited budget." Liz thinks it's adding insult to injury that she's footing the bill for her ex to live "the good life" while their children do without, and she has considered withholding support until Joe proves to her that her money is being spent on the children.

"But how could I face my kids if I stopped paying for them?" she asks. Liz, who owns and runs a small retail business, works too many hours to have her kids on a full-time basis. But she has recently begun to examine her options more closely to see if there's any way that she could have primary custody and still be able to support her family. "Until then, I just have to come up with coping strategies such as getting good-quality hand-me-downs from my sister's kids, and keeping most of these clothes at my apartment so my kids will have something decent to wear when they're with me."

Parents like Liz feel it's wrong that the courts are only interested in whether or not support is paid and not in how it's spent. There are no state laws that require an accounting of how child support is being spent. People become angry or upset when they see no evidence that their child-support payments are being spent on their children, and this sometimes causes them to start withholding payments. Unlike Liz, some parents use this strategy in an attempt to force the custodial parent to start spending money on the kids.

Aside from paying child support, a non-custodial parent who has regular access to his or her kids will often provide non-cash support. This includes buying birthday gifts; taking their children on holidays; buying them clothes, food and groceries; paying partial medical expenses and or child care expenses; and summer-camp fees.

Conflict Resolution
Going to court isn't the only way to resolve disputes about support or visitations. Before litigating, consider a mediation session to discuss -- or discover -- what the problem is. "Try to resolve the situation through negotiation with your spouse or through lawyers, Collaborative Law, mediation, or arbitration" advises Dr. Barbara Landau, a mediator with Cooperative Solutions. Unless there is domestic violence, the way to prevent the situation of non-payment is to "encourage the relationship and consider how the other party handled the separation, behaving respectfully toward one another and communicating about parenting issues, and demonstrating responsibility in providing for the child," says Landau.

California-based mediator Forrest Mosten agrees, adding that the best way to prevent the problem from arising or dealing with the situation when it does arise is a "future dispute-resolution clause requiring mediation before a court-enforcement hearing." This helps the parents "take control of their own destiny rather than leaving it up to a stranger to see what they will impose." Negotiation facilitated by a mediator or collaborative lawyers can provide a forum to deal with some of the issues yourselves rather than leaving the decision to a judge.

Improving the lines of communication and learning to cooperate with your ex will increase the odds of receiving your child-support. "Fostering a spirit of cooperation with your ex means laying down your weapons in the war of divorce in order to protect your children," advise Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran in their book Joint Custody with a Jerk (St. Martin's Press, 1996). "It means that you stop being reactive and start being proactive... No matter what your feelings are, your children will be better off if you keep them as your central focus and work diligently at keeping the parenting relationship civil and cooperative."

"Non-custodial parents like to be included," says Salka. Mediation can be an effective way to resolve disputes over support or access. "In mediation, non-custodial parents feel they have some control in determining the amount they will have to pay. The best way to make sure non-custodial parents pay is to include them in their children's lives."

What can you do?
If the situation can't be resolved through negotiation, one option is "wage assignment". "If there are significant arrears, the supported parent can ask the court to order that the support is deposited in a trust account, to ensure that it is paid," says Brave. "Or you could ask to be given an asset, such as a car, to be sold to guarantee support." Another legal solution Brave suggests is going to the District Attorney's Child Support Enforcement Unit to have your ex's license suspended (this could be a driver's license or business license). You could also hire an attorney to file a Contempt action, which could have the payer fined, committed to community service, or perhaps even doing some jail time. However, these options may be counter-productive, since they may prevent your ex from working to earn the money to pay support.

If there's a valid reason why you can't pay a portion or all of your child support, you should petition the court for a reduction in support. However, it's not good enough to say: "I have a new wife, so I can't afford to pay for my kids." Acceptable reasons include: you lost your job; you could no longer keep your second job due to family obligations or health issues; you have become injured or sick and can no longer work (temporarily or permanently).

The bottom line
"A child raised without adequate support is at a significant disadvantage in life," writes Judge James W. Stewart in his book The Child Custody Book (Impact Publishers, 2000). "Inadequate schools, poor health care, and a social environment in which the values of education and achievement will take a back seat to the tasks of obtaining food, shelter, and safety. An economically disadvantaged child will be far less likely to attend college, and the chances that he will drop out of school or engage in criminal conduct as a teenager or young adult are dramatically increased."

Quick Facts

  • Custodial mothers represent 85.1% of all custodial parents.
  • Only 14.9% of fathers have custody of their children.
  • Custodial mothers are more likely to have an agreement or to be awarded child support than custodial fathers.
  • Custodial fathers are less likely to receive child-support payments than mothers.
  • 56.3% of custodial parents had some sort of agreement or award for their children.
  • 32.4% of custodial parents didn't feel they needed a legal agreement.
  • Median family income for custodial mothers is $21,440; for custodial fathers, it's $30,023.
  • The proportion of custodial parents and their children living in poverty is 28.9%, which has dropped from 33.3% in 1993. Today, custodial parents are more likely to have full-time jobs and the likelihood of participating in a public assistance program, which partially accounts for the drop in poverty.
  • 66% of fathers lack the financial resources to pay the allotted payment of child support.
  • 40% of mothers reported that they had interfered with the fathers' visitation to punish the ex-spouse.
  • 43.8% of non-custodial parents provided health insurance as part of the agreement or award.
  • The standard of living after divorce dropped 28% for women and 7% for men.
  • More than 1.5 million children -- nearly 2.5% of all US children -- undergo the experience of parents separating or getting divorced every year.

Sources: US Census Bureau, US Government Accounting Office, American Sociological Review, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Washington DC: Child Trends

 

Child Support & Access Resources

Here are some organizations that can assist you with child support or visitation issues.

CANADA

USA

 


Diana Shepherd (Hon. BA, CDFA™) is an award-winning editor, published author, and a nationally-recognized expert on divorce, remarriage, finance, and stepfamily issues.

"Depending on how equalization of payment is calculated, child support may be set at an unrealistic level."

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It appears that the majority of so-called "deadbeats" default on their support payments for one of two reasons: they can't afford to pay them, or they have little or no contact with their children and the parental bond has eroded.

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Quick Facts

  • Custodial mothers represent 85.1% of all custodial parents.
  • Only 14.9% of fathers have custody of their children.
  • Custodial mothers are more likely to have an agreement or to be awarded child support than custodial fathers.
  • Custodial fathers are less likely to receive child-support payments than mothers.
  • 56.3% of custodial parents had some sort of agreement or award for their children.
  • 32.4% of custodial parents didn't feel they needed a legal agreement.
  • Median family income for custodial mothers is $21,440; for custodial fathers, it's $30,023.
  • The proportion of custodial parents and their children living in poverty is 28.9%, which has dropped from 33.3% in 1993. Today, custodial parents are more likely to have full-time jobs and the likelihood of participating in a public assistance program, which partially accounts for the drop in poverty.
  • 66% of fathers lack the financial resources to pay the allotted payment of child support.
  • 40% of mothers reported that they had interfered with the fathers' visitation to punish the ex-spouse.
  • 43.8% of non-custodial parents provided health insurance as part of the agreement or award.
  • The standard of living after divorce dropped 28% for women and 7% for men.
  • More than 1.5 million children -- nearly 2.5% of all US children -- undergo the experience of parents separating or getting divorced every year.

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