A Word from the Wise: Molly Olson on Child Support

October 5, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

This is a good article on joint custody and child support (Fatherly, 10/1/18). It’s good not least because it relies on the highly knowledgeable Molly Olson for much of its content. That’s always a good thing. Needless to say, Olson has at least one very good suggestion regarding child support for divorcing parents.

The article first has Olson explain the basics – legal custody, physical custody and parenting time.

Most states have a presumption of joint legal custody, but some don’t. “Every dad would want and need to get joint legal custody because it guarantees the basic right to be involved in medical healthcare, and religious decisions with your child,” Molly Olson says. “If you don’t get joint legal custody and you’re at the park and your child falls of the swing and they break their arm you won’t be able to bring them to the ER. You won’t be able to get a report card, and you won’t be able to attend a parent teacher conference.”

Right. As to physical custody,

“The tradition for the past 40 years of mothers having children 26 days per month and dad seeing his children every other weekend is a completely outdated model not backed by research,” Olson says. “It was put into action in the ‘60s based on assumptions that women didn’t work outside the home and were full time homemakers. But women work just as much as men and research clearly says that equal shared parenting is what’s best for children.”

Well, actually women don’t “work just as much as men” outside the home, but Olson’s point remains – the current system is out of whack and out of time.

Her bottom line: Dads need to know that they are needed at least 50 percent of the time.

Besides it being what’s best for children, it’s also more beneficial to moms (so they don’t have an excessive burden put on them), and it’s more beneficial to dads (because the more time you spend with your child, the less child support you pay).

Well, that last isn’t true in many states. In most, there’s no direct connection between parenting time and the amount of child support paid. And the main reasons equal parenting time benefits fathers is that they’re happier, more fulfilled and feel more valued when they’re not shunted to the side by some court doing the bidding of a vindictive ex.

That brings us to child support when there’s substantially equal parenting time.

“Since [the 60s], the child support system has ballooned out of control and it’s now hidden alimony and lifestyle support,” Olson says. “It’s was supposed to be based on the cost of raising a child — which the USDA says that the current cost of raising a child is $233,000 for 18 years. That’s about $12,900 a year, which breaks down to $1,000 a month, divided by two parents is $500 a month.”

That of course was openly and frankly done. Armed with Lenore Weitzman’s cooked statistics that purported to show that mothers on average saw a 74% drop in living standards following divorce (the real figure was 26%) and the equally false notion that fathers don’t care about their kids and only want to avoid supporting them, states went hard about the task of transferring as much of Dad’s income to Mom as possible. They therefore produced child support guidelines that often bear little resemblance to how much it costs to raise a child.

Olson is spot on in her description of child support as “hidden alimony and lifestyle support.” (Don’t believe me? Here’s just one example of cases that flit across my screen every single day.)

So what about her $500 figure? It looks about right to me, but I approach the matter a bit differently. If states figure a child costs X to support, shouldn’t those states pay X for children in their care? That is, shouldn’t state payments to foster parents roughly approximate the cost to those parents of raising the child?

So how much do states pay to foster parents? Here in Texas, it comes to $22.15 per day per child. That comes to about $670 per month. Now, the State of Texas would never pay foster parents less than the cost to care for a child, right? That would be unconscionable and the state would be hard pressed to recruit foster parents. Of course there are certain extras the state also reimburses such as for clothing purchased and a few other items. So let’s say the state, on average, pays foster parents $700 per child per month.

Shouldn’t that be what the state demands of parents to raise a single child? If so, and if Dad has no right to see the child, shouldn’t his child support obligation be $350 per month? And if he sees the child 50% of the time, shouldn’t his support obligation be zero?

That’s all rational enough, which of course is why it bears no resemblance to what states actually do. The reason is that, as Olson said, much of child support is ex-wife support in (thinly-veiled) disguise.

“Every state has their own way of calculating child support,” Olson says. “The Department of Human Services creates the guidelines based on percent of income — not fulfilling monthly costs for children — and the rates that the state says should be paid or by fathers is far beyond the amount required to meet the USDA’s projected cost to raise a child.”

That brings us to Olson’s good idea:

Because let’s be honest, every family’s spending and earning needs are different — so a number slapped on you by the state probably isn’t going to be the best fit. That’s why many divorced families are turning to a “Children’s Checkbook.” A Children’s Checkbook allows you and your co-parent to agree on the budget for the child. Then, each parent puts money into the checkbook every month, so when there is a cost related to the child in any way the money is simply taken the checkbook.

“It’s important — and healthiest — to put in the work to keep the lawyers, out keep the state out, and meet your child’s needs in a unique way,” Olson says. 

Right and right again.

Judges are happiest when parents agree, when they draw up their own plan, plop it down on the court’s desk and ask him/her to sign. Judges love cases that move along quickly and easily and with the least court involvement possible. So agreements between spouses are welcomed by the, ahem, Men in Black.

And of course keeping lawyers out of the process is almost always a good idea. Lawyers thrive on conflict and many of them exacerbate it for their own financial ends. So, to save money and reduce stress, parents should avoid lawyers. Of course if one’s ex is bent on conflict, the other parent may have to take a deep breath, hold his/her nose and pay for representation. But if it’s not necessary, parents shouldn’t waste their money.

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