October 22, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Halle Berry, welcome to the world of fathers. This article tells us that the actress has become unhappy with the behavior of her ex and father of her daughter (TMZ, 10/16/14). It seems model Gabriel Aubry is content to spend his days unemployed and live off the $16,000 per month Berry pays him in child support for daughter Nahla, now 6. Berry reasons that Aubry is perfectly capable of finding paid employment and should do so. She says that, if he were earning a living, she could reduce her support payments to around $3,000 and Nahla would still lack for nothing.
She’s right of course. As the whole world knows, it doesn’t take $16,000 a month to raise one child. That’s $192,000 tax-free per year. A family of five could live on that very comfortably and that’s paying the mortgage, the house insurance, car insurance, health insurance, food, utilities, car payments and on and on. Needless to say, little Nahla pays none of those things.
And, given that Aubry doesn’t seem moved to lift a finger on his own behalf and that he’s paying his bills somehow, it stands to reason that he’s using a good bit of that $16k to support himself, not Nahla. In other words, however much it actually takes to support a little girl who’s unquestionably used to the good life, a lot of the money Berry’s paying in “child support” is actually being spent for Daddy support.
As I’ve said countless times, amounts ordered to be paid as child support should bear some relationship to what it actually takes to support a child. The idea that, just because a child’s non-custodial parent happens to be a movie star or an oil tycoon, he/she should receive massive sums in child support, is simply absurd. Yes, it’s true that children like Nahla get used to certain amenities of life that most kids don’t and shouldn’t be required to live in poverty just because Mommy and Daddy split up.
But what’s also true is that, if the non-custodial parent chooses to forego gainful employment, it can be beneficial to a child to learn that, when one makes that choice, certain consequences follow. That is, when one elects not to work for a living, one’s standard of living tends to be lower than if one makes the opposite decision. Of course I’m not arguing for a child to lack the basics of a decent life. I think all children should have that and, if possible, more. But Berry’s arguing to cut back her payments to $3,000 per month. Any child anywhere can survive very nicely on that.
What if the judge agreed with Berry and reduced the amount Aubry receives? Again, Nahla will do very well on $3,000 per month, but Aubry and Nahla would live a pretty straitened lifestyle. Would that encourage Aubry to get off the couch and get a job? My guess is that it would, and, if it did, that would be a good thing. It would be good for him and it would be good for Nahla to see her father as a serious man and not a goldbricker. It would be good for the economy, too. Generally speaking, we want the able-bodied to be contributing their share and Gabriel Aubry is more than capable of doing so.
But of course Aubry might channel his inner deadbeat and try to live solely off the $3,000. That would be outrageous, but he might do it, and if he did, I’d say it’d be one very compelling reason for a judge to consider giving custody to Berry. After all, it’s not detrimental to the child for her and her father to live on $192,000 tax free every year. But for the two of them to get by on $36k is a different matter, particularly given that they live in Los Angeles, not exactly the cheapest venue they could find. Any parent who intentionally squeezes his child’s standard of living just so he/she doesn’t have to get a job is a parent whose qualifications to be a custodial parent need to be carefully scrutinized.
In order to reduce Aubry’s monthly take, all a judge has to do is impute income to him based on his earnings as a model. Now it may well be that the judge already did so and the $16k is the result. (It’s certainly not based solely on Berry’s earnings. She’s reputed to be worth a cool $60 million, based on which, $192,000 is chump change.) If the judge has already imputed income to Aubry, there’s little Berry can do to reduce what she pays.
But there should be. Just a few days ago I reported on a move by an Australian Member of Parliament who’s promoting an idea to make custodial parents account for their expenditures of “child support” funds. I think that makes good sense for all the reasons I mentioned. And, for many of the same reasons, I think Berry should be able to reduce her payments to Aubry.
The primary reason is that child support should be used for, well, supporting the child, not the custodial parent. Of course money is a fungible good, so in many cases, it’s hard to tell which dollars are being used for diapers for Baby and which for diazepam for Mommy. If we instituted a system like the one I outlined in my previous piece, the payer would pay into an account that could only be accessed by a debit card held by the custodial parent and both would receive itemized statements from said account each month. That way the non-custodial parent could monitor the expenditures and go to court if they weren’t used for the child.
Well, in the Berry/Aubry case, it’s all but certain that Aubry isn’t using 100% of the “child support” money on Nahla; he’s using a fair amount on himself. So Berry should be able to get an accounting from him and, however much isn’t going to the child should be deducted from what she pays. Obviously, the child doesn’t need it because she’s not getting it.
The same should be true for every custodial parent who, like Aubry, isn’t employed but is employable. Because we say we want children to be supported, any custodial parent who isn’t either working or seeking work is living off the child support he/she receives. Therefore, the child doesn’t need all that’s being paid and the order should be reduced to reflect the fact.
That should be the law in all cases except two. The first is that of a custodial parent who’s substantially disabled and unable to work and earn. In that case, he/she will be entitled to disability benefits from the Social Security Administration, a fact that should be reflected in the amount of child support ordered by the court.
The second exception is that of a custodial parent who’s very well-to-do financially. In that case, the parent may not be working for a living but is simply using his/her invested funds for self-support and the child support funds for child support. Again, a system to account for what’s spent would be all it takes to demonstrate where the money’s coming from and where it’s going.
That’s the system we should have. If we did, we’d have more custodial parents contributing their share to the economy and modelling the virtue of working and earning for their children. We’d also have millions of non-custodial parents who are a lot happier than they are now. That’s because they’d feel like they have some say about how their hard-earned dollars, that are supposed to be used for their kids, are actually being spent. And we’d have child support orders that are much more reasonable than they currently are because they’d be based on the actual amounts custodial parents spend on their kids.
Now, some will argue that we shouldn’t make support orders commensurate with the actual cost of raising children. After all, in the Berry/Aubry case, to do so would mean Nahla would live a very opulent lifestyle with her mother and a considerably lesser one with her dad. To which I ask, “So what?”
The truth is that, as long as children have what they need, they can easily understand that one parent earns less than the other. They learn that life is different with the lower earner than with the higher. The car isn’t as fancy, the furniture is worn, they eat at McDonalds instead of The Ritz. Kids not only can understand those things, they should. After all, it’s just reality. As an adult, if you don’t work and earn, you don’t live as well as if you do. It’s a good lesson for kids.
Come to think of it, it’s a good lesson for custodial parents as well. Both our alimony and our child support systems are dedicated to the proposition that a custodial parent (and the lesser-earning one) should undergo no change in living standard despite the divorce or separation. The idea that one adult should continue with the same lifestyle despite divorce and not working or working for low wages is not only absurd on its face, but a bad lesson to teach a child.
The system that I’ve described of course exists nowhere in the world. Essentially every incentive of the divorce, alimony and child support systems opposes healthy values and encourages behavior no society should promote. Too bad Halle Berry doesn’t know that. She’s angry about a system that allows Aubry to live off his child’s support money and she’s got every right to be.
And in that, she’s in the same boat as millions of non-custodial parents across the country and around the world who daily grit their teeth and pay money to a disliked former partner who’s free to use it for any purpose regardless of how irresponsible, no questions asked.
Halle Berry, welcome to Dads’ World.
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