Friday, April 2, 2010

What Divorce Law is Doing to Marriage Part 41

More from the words of Jed Abraham

This was done deliberately. Someone had to bear the decrease in standard of living that resulted from the loss of economy of scale. Now, who should that be? It couldn’t be the children. This is child support, and in child support the children come first: the children must be maintained at the level they would have enjoyed had their parents not messed things up and got divorced. It couldn’t be the custodial parent. She lives with the children. Her loss would be their loss, too. So it was obvious the non-custodial parent should be stuck with the bulk of the bill. It did not matter that children in intact families share financial hardships with their parents. Even splitting the difference among all family members was seen primarily as defeating the purpose of the guidelines.

Ignored but not forgotten, too, was the fact that the children did spend some time with the father. The father did incur both fixed and variable expenses when his children were with him. These expenses when his children were with him. These expenses were substantial. He had to provide an extra bedroom, extra clothes, diapers, food, toiletries, transportation, and entertainment, even when the children visited less than 20% of the time. These expenses were not fully credited to him in the guidelines.

This was done deliberately. The guidelines were intended to provide the children of divorce with a marital standard of living in the custodian’s home. Just as a full adjustment for the loss of economy of scale would subvert that intention, so would a full adjustment for the expenses of the visitational parent in his home. This was child support. In child support, the children come first.

There were no more insensible variations in child support awards. All judges now did justice. They had guidelines. The guidelines knew. They ere made up by experts.

The guidelines turned child support jurisprudence on its head. Before the federal mandates, state law required the courts to treat each case on its own facts and circumstances. General statistical guidelines could, at most, be advisory. They could not be the sole basis of an award. Mindless application of guidelines to child support obligations was considered reversible error, the very antithesis of the trial judge’s duty to do justice in the particular case before him. But with the institution of federally mandated guidelines, the opposite became the rule. The courts were to presume that the guidelines were correct, that they produced the minimal acceptable amount in all cases. Although the court may yet vary from them, it must give very strong reasons for doing so, and it must ground those reasons in the “best interest of the child.” A busty judge could feel safe when he applied the guidelines, and he could be asking for trouble when he did not.

The guidelines did raise extra funds for the feds, but less than they expected. During much of the 1970s and 1980s as the feds tried to squeeze more and more out of fathers, men’s income did not keep pace with the rise in the cost of living. There never was much that could be wrung from poor, young, unmarried fathers. The best judges could do in those cases was take whatever they could get and throw some of the laggards in jail as an example to the rest. Divorced fathers, however, were different dudes. They had incomes. They had property. They knew who their kids were. They could be squeezed. And they were.

So it was that unmarried fathers, who posed the greatest challenge to child support collection, were least put off by the strict new guidelines, while divorced fathers, who had the best all around payment records, were rewarded by having to pay even more.

More on the chapter “Child Support” on next summary.