In New Zealand, Widespread Discontent with Child Support Laws

Does anyone anywhere get child support right?  I’ll hazard a ‘no’ answer to that question.

This article and this one are about New Zealand’s child support system, but with a minor tweak here are there, they could be about any state in the United States (Southland Times, 12/30/10) (Southland Times, 1/3/11).

The problems with the system are familiar, and in New Zealand, in some ways worse than in the U.S, but no one who’s familiar with child support issues in this country will be confused about what’s going on in New Zealand.

That’s because what’s going on there is the same as it is here – fathers are widely assumed to be deadbeats whose sole motivation is to avoid contact with and responsibility for the children they help produce.  Of course those assumptions are dead wrong in the vast majority of cases, but much public policy considers them the Gospel. 

So the news is trumpeted that NZ Southlanders owe some $22 million in unpaid child support and that there are more non-custodial parents in arrears than there are who are paid up.  But little attention is paid to the fact that less than one-third of that arrearage is actual support; the rest is penalties and interest. 

I could say the same about any state in the United States that charges interest on unpaid child support.

Then there’s the fact that the vast majority of non-custodial parents are fathers.  And, as in the U.S., the most draconian measures are taken to enforce the payment of support but custodial mothers aren’t required to honor visitation schedules ordered by the court.  Tough luck, Dad.

And apparently, upward modifications of support are done with surprising ease, but when Dad hits a bad patch economically, he can’t seem to get anyone to listen to him. 

For example, one father reports receiving 10 increases in his support level over a 14-month period.  Many of those reflected not lasting salary increases, but occasional overtime.  What happened in the months when he didn’t work the overtime?  You don’t need to ask.  Nothing happened; his support level, that reflected previous overtime, remained the same.

Stock roles in the drama are the Bureaucracy That Doesn’t Care and the Mother Who Controls the System. 

Fathers complain about a computer system that routinely fails to consider their parenting time or the extras they pay.  And if that means dads actually have to go into debt to make their payments, that too is just their tough luck.  They are in fact, just a wallet and wallets do one thing only – pay.  Sound familiar?

One father mentions the fact that he and his wife had a 50/50 parenting arrangement that she decided to report to the Inland Revenue Department as one in which she did all the parenting and Dad did none. 

What did IRD agents do?  They took her at her word, the court order notwithstanding.  He had to get letters and affidavits from attorneys and others to convince the IRD that the court order really meant what it said.  That took three months during which time he had to pay far more than should have been required.  

Was she held to account in some way for lying to the IRD?  Please.

Another dad reported that his ex decided to have another child.  That meant that she took maternity leave which increased his support level.  His question is a good one – why is her decision to have another child my responsibility? 

Then there’s the guy who paid for 13 years for a child who wasn’t his.  It seems that the mom has to agree for DNA testing to be done.  That allows her to decide which guy she wants to tag with child support obligations. 

Those who defend the system say “take responsibility for your children.”  But they suddenly go silent about the same system that demands that one man take responsibility for a child who’s not his while the actual father pays not a cent.  Responsibility?  It looks more like they’re defending maternal power than promoting paternal responsibility.

What’s different about New Zealand is that it’s reevaluating its child support system.  The government quit taking comments on the current system at the end of October of 2010, so presumably recommendations for change will come soon, but as yet, we don’t know what they’ll be.

Chief among the changes desired by non-custodial dads is that child support be based on factors other than solely income.  That is, support levels should be based on what it costs to raise a child as well as Dad’s ability to pay that amount.

In New Zealand, anger at the system stems partly from its unfairness, its bureaucratic disdain for real-world issues faced by non-custodial parents and, above all, from the fact that dads have little or no say about any of it.  I’m convinced that it’s that powerlessness that is at the root of most of child support’s problems.  

Allow dads the ability to modify child support downward to reflect changed circumstances as easily as it’s raised and there’ll be a lot less complaining.  Empower non-custodial parents to enforce visitation orders and you’ll see less still.  Or so I predict.

My guess is that fathers’ lack of power to assert their own legitimate rights and interests is at the heart of most of the dissatisfaction about family law and family courts. 

And that’s true pretty much wherever you go, be it New Zealand or the U.S.

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