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This article was first published in the Florida Divorce Magazine and are reprinted here with their full permission. dmlogo.gif (2353 bytes)

The "Deadbeat": Myths & Realities
We've all read the dismal stories about ex-spouses who default on their support payments. But has anyone thought to ask why these people aren't paying?
By Radmila Avramovic & Diana Shepherd

The headline reads: "Deadbeat Dads/Moms." The article then goes on to inform you of how they refuse to pay child support and how they live in luxury while their children go without food, clothing, and the bare necessities to live. Is this depiction accurate? If so, how often does it happen? And -- perhaps most importantly -- why does it happen?

Although the answers to these questions will vary depending on the situation, it does appear that the majority of so-called "deadbeats" default on their support payments for one of two reasons: they can't afford to pay them, or they have little or no contact with their children and the parental bond has eroded. According to Lawrence Bloom, an attorney with offices in New York and New Jersey and an advisory board member for Parental Rights, the non-custodial parent simply can't afford it in most cases. "They have new obligations, and they're doing the best they can," says Bloom. "The court based the child support on the two jobs he was working, and now, due to a new wife or medical reasons, he can't work the second job."

Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers & Children (ACFC), agrees. "In some cases, child support is set unrealistically high. Child support can be based on a capacity to earn or on imputed income rather than on actual earnings. Non-payment of child support is not always willful, as some are inclined to believe. There will always be unforeseen circumstances affecting a family's financial stability, such as job loss, illness, injuries, or disabilities that can happen to any family whether it's intact or not."

The Custody Link

Statistically, payment of child support is linked to custody and/or frequent visitations. The most recent US Census Bureau data shows that fathers with joint custody pay their child support 90% of the time; fathers with visitation pay theirs 79.1% of the time; and fathers with neither joint custody nor visitation pay support only 44% of the time. These statistics point to the second reason why most non-custodial parents don't pay child support.

David Wildstein, a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and chair of the family law department of Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer in New Jersey, says: "Some people default to retaliate because they're not getting visitation -- or the type of visitation -- they want." Legally, child support and custody are always treated separately, but non-custodial parents will try to link them. Kay Kullen, a spokeswoman for the National Child Support Enforcement Association, adds: "Child support agencies have no legal jurisdiction over enforcement of visitation or custody. However, each state child support agency has instituted access and visitation programs that link parents to resources that can assist in the resolution of visitation issues."

Most judges find it easier to make a decision based on finances (child support) rather than on emotional issues (custody/visitation). "Courts have trouble enforcing visitation rights because it's so easy to argue that 'he or she was abusive' or 'the children are afraid of him or her' to explain why the schedule wasn't honored," says Brian Muldoon, a mediator and the author of The Heart of Conflict.  Parenting issues can be emotional, risky, and complicated for a judge to wade through. "Money is much easier: either it was paid or it wasn't. And it can take months for a court to rule on parenting issues (with the appointment of experts, and so forth), while non-payment of support can be decided in minutes."

Separating The Issues

Although some divorcing parents try to combine the two issues, the law says that child support and access are independent covenants. And rightly so: otherwise, an abusive parent could refuse to pay support unless the custodial parent allowed the children to spend time with him or her.

Gene is a 35-year-old man who has been wrangling with his ex-wife about child support for and access to their eight-year-old daughter, Katy, for the past three years. "I'm in and out of court all the time," he says bitterly. "I've already spent more on legal fees than I would have had to spend to support Katy to age 18 -- about $200,000." Gene stopped paying child support 15 months after his ex, Mary, stopped allowing him to see their daughter. "She hauls me into court regarding payment, and I haul her into court regarding access. I was a great father -- she denies access only to yank my chain. Do you really think it's in Katy's best interests that she grow up without knowing her father?"

Probably not, but is it in her best interests to grow up without adequate financial support? Studies show that the children who adjust best to divorce are those who remain in close contact with both parents, as long as those parents are not in constant conflict. Assuming that Gene and Mary can agree to resolve their issues with each other -- through counseling or mediation, for instance -- Gene is correct in thinking that it would be in Katy's best interests to have regular, positive contact with her father. But until that happens, Gene must separate his anger at Mary from his obligations to Katy and start making child-support payments again.

Old arguments, old hurts, and anger from the past can cause couples to behave like Gene and Mary, each of whom is completely uninterested in trying to see things from the other's point of view. Each would rather spend the next decade fighting in court than admit any responsibility for creating and maintaining the deadlock they're in now.

Even though child support and access are independent covenants, disgruntled custodial and non-custodial parents do have a few avenues to help them resolve their disputes. In 1997, funds were allocated to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and territories for a new grant program as part of the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program. Activities include mediation, counseling, education, development of parenting plans, visitation enforcement, and development of guidelines for visitation and alternative custody arrangements.

How Is The Money Spent?

The resentment, hurt, and mistrust generated by an acrimonious divorce can cause reluctance or refusal to pay spousal or child support. Sometimes, the payer believes the support is being spent frivolously or that it isn't really being used for the kids. How the money is spent is a frequently asked question.

Liz does pay her child support for their two kids to her ex-husband, Joe, but she's getting increasingly upset about the way he seems to be spending it. "Last year, he took trips to the Caribbean and Europe, and our children are walking around looking like street urchins, with ragged and ill-fitting clothes and sneakers that are more hole than shoe," she fumes. "When they come to visit me, I end up buying them clothes and toiletries even though I'm now on a very limited budget." Liz thinks it's adding insult to injury that she's footing the bill for her ex to live "the good life" while their children do without, and she has considered withholding support until Joe proves to her that her money is being spent on the children.

"But how could I face my kids if I stopped paying for them?" she asks. Liz, who owns and runs a small retail business, works too many hours to have her kids on a full-time basis. But she has recently begun to examine her options more closely to see if there's any way that she could have primary custody and still be able to support her family. "Until then, I just have to come up with coping strategies such as getting good-quality hand-me-downs from my sister's kids, and keeping most of these clothes at my apartment so my kids will have something decent to wear when they're with me."

Parents like Liz feel it's wrong that the courts are only interested in whether or not support is paid and not in how it's spent. There are no state laws that require an accounting of how child support is being spent. People become angry or upset when they see no evidence that their child-support payments are being spent on their children, and this sometimes causes them to start withholding payments. Unlike Liz, some parents use this strategy in an attempt to force the custodial parent to start spending money on the kids.

Aside from paying child support, a non-custodial parent who has regular access to his or her kids will often provide non-cash support. This includes buying birthday gifts; taking their children on holidays; buying them clothes, food and groceries; paying partial medical expenses and or child care expenses; and summer-camp fees.

Resolving Support Conflict

Going to court isn't the only way to resolve disputes about support or visitations. Before litigating, you should "consider a mediation session to discuss what the problem is," suggests Carol Butler, Ph.D., a mediator and therapist in New York. However, mediation can be very difficult if someone is looking for revenge or is simply being vindictive. "If there's a real emotional problem, then the legal way may be the only option," Butler says.

Improving the lines of communication and learning to cooperate with your ex will increase the odds of receiving your child-support. "Fostering a spirit of cooperation with your ex means laying down your weapons in the war of divorce in order to protect your children," advise Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran in their book Joint Custody with a Jerk. "It means that you stop being reactive and start being proactive... No matter what your feelings are, your children will be better off if you keep them as your central focus and work diligently at keeping the parenting relationship civil and cooperative."

What Can You Do?

If your ex is employed and can afford to pay support, but "forgets" or simply fails to make regular payments, Wildstein suggests you consider a wage garnishment, which is an automatic deduction from your ex's wages. Other legal solutions include collecting child-support payments from your ex's income tax refunds, or having his/her driver's license revoked.

"If you find you can't pay, you may have to ask to pay a lower amount," Bloom says. "You'll need to have a good reason why you can't pay, however, such as a wife who can't work because of a medical condition, or that the amount of support was artificially high because the husband temporarily had a second job -- these are good reasons.

The Bottom Line

"A child raised without adequate support is at a significant disadvantage in life," writes Judge James W. Stewart in his book The Child Custody Book. "Inadequate schools, poor health care, and a social environment in which the values of education and achievement will take a back seat to the tasks of obtaining food, shelter, and safety. An economically disadvantaged child will be far less likely to attend college, and the chances that he will drop out of school or engage in criminal conduct as a teenager or young adult are dramatically increased."

Quick Facts

  • Custodial mothers represent 85.1% of all custodial parents.
  • Only 14.9% of fathers have custody of their children.
  • Custodial mothers are more likely to have an agreement or to be awarded child support than custodial fathers.
  • Custodial fathers are less likely to receive child-support payments than mothers.
  • 56.3% of custodial parents had some sort of agreement or award for their children.
  • 32.4% of custodial parents didn't feel they needed a legal agreement.
  • Median family income for custodial mothers is $21,440; for custodial fathers, it's $30,023.
  • The proportion of custodial parents and their children living in poverty is 28.9%, which has dropped from 33.3% in 1993. Today, custodial parents are more likely to have full-time jobs and the likelihood of participating in a public assistance program, which partially accounts for the drop in poverty.
  • 66% of fathers lack the financial resources to pay the allotted payment of child support.
  • 40% of mothers reported that they had interfered with the fathers' visitation to punish the ex-spouse.
  • 43.8% of non-custodial parents provided health insurance as part of the agreement or award.
  • The standard of living after divorce dropped 28% for women and 7% for men.
  • More than 1.5 million children -- nearly 2.5% of all US children -- undergo the experience of parents separating or getting divorced every year.

Sources: US Census Bureau, US Government Accounting Office, American Sociological Review, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Washington DC: Child Trends

Child Support & Access Resources

Here are some organizations that can assist you with child support or visitation issues.

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