State rethinks child support formula
High-income fathers call policy onerous
By Kathleen Burge, Boston Globe, Globe Correspondent, 7/29/2001
Her husband, a Harvard-educated university professor, earns $68,000 a year. But half his take-home pay, nearly $1,700 a month, goes to child support to his son from a previous marriage. He and his new family - his second wife and their soon-to-be-born daughter - share the other half.
''This is a terrible injustice,'' she says. ''I feel as though I am being told by the government that I cannot have children.''
As the state goes through its quadrennial review of child support guidelines - formulas designed to help judges decide how much divorced or separated parents should pay to support their children - stories like Lesley Bazant's have become the focus of public hearings from Boston to Springfield. In a state with a reputation for requiring noncustodial parents to write hefty child support checks, this year's review has galvanized fathers (and sometimes their wives) who think they pay too much.
Many of them are professionals. There's the doctor who says he's teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the executive who says he will soon have to choose between paying child support and his mortgage. They are part of a group that doesn't usually win much sympathy for their financial struggles. But they point to several studies that suggest Massachusetts asks more of its higher-income parents than other states.
Child support is such a touchy subject because it brings together two highly volatile issues: divorce and money. And it inserts the courts into a personal realm, one that usually remains private among intact families.
As the state's judiciary considers changing the guidelines, it is also struggling with the changing nature of families, not just divorce, but blended families and multiple marriages and more working parents.
Should a first child whose parents happened to divorce get more money than subsequent children? Should a first child suffer financially because one parent has a new family? Should the incomes of stepparents be considered when calculating child support?
''There is no easy answer to the problem,'' said Probate and Family Court Judge Edward Ginsburg after one hearing. ''And there is pain to go around. What we will try to do is spread that pain as fairly as possible.''
A 1999 study by two researchers, including a US Department of Agriculture economist, indicated that under state guidelines, a high-income parent would be required to pay more in Massachusetts than in 44 other states. (The USDA calculates the annual cost of raising a child.) In contrast, that study also found that for low-income parents, Massachusetts guidelines required parents to pay less than all but two states.
That study looked at parents with two children. Another study, done last year by David Weden, a financial analyst and divorced father from Dover, considered state child support guidelines for one child. Weden's results showed an even more yawning disparity between Massachusetts and other states.
''It's the one-child, high-income cases where Massachusetts is literally twice the national average,'' said Weden, who sent away for the support guidelines from all 50 states.
Massachusetts also extends child support payments longer than any other state except Hawaii. If children are in college, noncustodial parents can be required to pay child support until their children are 23. Most states cut off support payments when children turn 18 or 19.
State officials and others say the support guidelines are designed with the best interests of children in mind. The guidelines, they say, are just that - suggestions for judges, who make the ultimate decision about child support. Parents can ask judges to lower their child support if their financial picture changes.
Under the current guidelines, noncustodial parents are expected to pay between 15 and 27 percent of their gross income - before taxes and other deductions - for one child, depending on how much they earn. That percentage increases once the child turns 7, and with additional children. Judges also consider custodial parents' income above $15,000.
''Most of the time, it's not 50 percent of what they take home,'' said Cynthia Creem, a state senator and lawyer who often handles child support cases and who chaired the Massachusetts Bar Association's family law section. ''That's where they need to go before the judge and explain.''
Creem, who represents both divorced mothers and fathers, thinks that changes in family relationships - especially as more mothers work outside the home - have increased disgruntlement with traditional child support arrangements.
''I'm seeing many more dads doing things with their kids than they used to,'' she said. ''I just think the whole system of how dads view their role as a parent has changed.''
And as divorced fathers spend more time caring for their children, bearing child-raising costs of their own, some are less willing to also pay significant child support, she said.
By the end of the year, Barbara Dortch-Okara, chief justice for administration and management, will make the final decision about whether to change the guidelines. She will consider testimony from the forums as well as economic data, including the cost of living, the cost of raising children, and guidelines from states similar to Massachusetts.
An economist may be hired to help sort through the numbers, she said.
In recent years, some parents have been frustrated by the lack of public information about the economic basis for the state's child support guidelines.
''These levels of child support impoverish men,'' said David Dodson, the doctor who says he is barely surviving financially because about half his take-home pay goes for child support for his 8-year-old daughter.
Dodson, who would not disclose his salary, said he pays $2,000 a month in child support. ''Who believes it is in any child's best interest to impoverish either of their parents?''
The last of the five public forums on child support guidelines was held on Tuesday in Springfield. At many of these gatherings, the anger has been palpable. ''Now I have this girl just sucking my blood like a vampire,'' said one divorced father at a Boston forum, referring to his former wife. His comments drew lots of clapping and a cheer of, ''That's right!''
But one mother from Dorchester stood up to talk about the importance of child support. ''How can you say any amount of money is too much for the well-being and happiness of your child?'' she asked.
The room was silent as she walked back to her seat. Then, quietly, one woman clapped.
Kathleen Burge can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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