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III. Child Support Enforcement and Low-Income Fathers

This Part explores the experiences of no- and low-income fathers within the child support system. In brief, although poor fathers are expected to pay support (and very often at levels that are high relative to their earnings), collections from this population remain low. Low collections persist despite states' employing aggressive and punitive enforcement strategies. This Part closely explores each aspect of this phenomenon. The analysis begins with the mechanism for establishing and modifying child support orders. It pays particular attention to guidelines governing low-income families and the application, in practice, of those guidelines to disadvantaged fathers. This Part next looks at the facts and figures concerning child support collections from poor fathers, examining not only to what extent they pay support, but also their capacities to pay given their actual earnings and opportunities for labor force participation. This Part next examines state enforcement strategies and their impact, and it finds that the child support system's systemic policies and practices operate to create a revolving prison door for many disadvantaged noncustodial fathers. This Part concludes by arguing that the prevailing approach to securing child support payments has been largely ineffective at improving the economic well-being of poor children, and further, that many of the existing policies and practices work to undermine achievement of that goal.

A. Establishing Child Support Orders for Low-Income Fathers

Reforms to the child support system have resulted in ever-larger numbers of noncustodial parents under orders of support. The number of child support orders that states have established increased from 315,000 in 1978 to 1,100,000 in 2000. This trend continued during the last decade, with the number of child support orders increasing to 1,297,020 in 2010. This development is consistent with the widely held view and expectation that all parents, including poor parents, should contribute to the support of their children. Child support laws purport to treat all noncustodial parents alike in terms of holding them financially responsible for their children, and there is no exception that categorically excuses low-income fathers from this obligation.

State child support guidelines base the amount of the child support award on the noncustodial parent's income (or the parent's proportionate share of both parents' income). Pursuant to the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, Congress required states to adopt statewide guidelines for establishing child support. Initially the guidelines were advisory; however, under the Family Support Act of 1988, the guidelines became mandatory and presumptively applied to all child support orders. Congress intended the numeric guidelines to promote consistent child support orders among families with similar circumstances and to reduce judicial discretion leading to disparate orders. The guidelines are intended to simplify the process of determining child support and to make outcomes more predictable. The guidelines operate as a rebuttable presumption, and should circumstances warrant, judges may deviate from the prescribed formula.

Each state may develop its own child support formula, but two formulas are most prevalent: the percentage-of-income formula and the income-shares formula. The percentage-of-income model is based on the child support guidelines enacted in Wisconsin. Under this framework, only the noncustodial parent's income is considered when calculating the support order. States that use the percentage-of-income model may either require the obligor to pay a flat percentage of income or apply a varying percentage based on both the obligor's income and the number and age of children the obligor supports. For example, under Wisconsin's formula, noncustodial parents are required to pay seventeen percent of their gross income in child support for one child. The child support order increases to twenty-five percent for two children, twenty-nine percent for three children, thirty-one percent for four children, and thirty-four percent for five or more children. With this model, only the noncustodial parent's income is directly factored into the child support calculation. Embodied in the percentage-of-income formula is a presumption that the custodial parent is contributing an appropriate amount through the ordinary course of parenting.

The income-shares model, by contrast, factors in the incomes of both the custodial and noncustodial parent. The formula first calculates the combined income of both parents and then estimates the amount spent on children by multiplying the parents' total income by a percentage that varies with income and number of children. Once the total support amount is determined, each parent's child support responsibility is determined by distributing the support amount between them based on his or her proportional share of the total parental income.

Because child support calculations are based on the income of the noncustodial parent, a low income would presumably yield a similarly low child support obligation. Indeed, recognizing the precarious economic situation of poor noncustodial parents, most state child support guidelines include alternative provisions for low-income payers. With respect to low-income payers, state guidelines take a variety of approaches. Under one approach, typically applied in situations in which the payer falls below the poverty threshold, the guidelines set a presumptive (and rebuttable) award of fifty dollars per month for each child. Under a similar approach, the guidelines do not establish a presumptive child support amount and leave the amount to judicial discretion. With both of these models, the guidelines provide discretionary decision-making, thus permitting a consideration of all relevant factors and determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Some states, like Wisconsin, have established special child support schedules that apply only to low-income cases. Wisconsin's Low-Income Payer rule takes a graduated approach to determining child support obligations for payers whose incomes fall between seventy-five percent and one-hundred-fifty percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Within that income range, the percentage rates in the formula gradually increase as income increases. For example, assuming a child support order for one child, the obligor whose income is at seventy-five percent of the federal poverty guidelines would have an order set at 11.11% of his gross income. The guidelines apply gradually increasing percentages to gross income (to calculate the child support owed) until the full 17% of gross income formula is used to establish an order for those obligors with gross monthly incomes that equal one-hundred-fifty percent of the federal poverty guideline. In the case of obligors with income below seventy-five percent of the federal poverty guideline, courts have discretion in setting orders. Wisconsin guidelines provide that the court may set an order at an amount appropriate for the payer's total economic circumstances.

Another approach to establishing child support orders for low-income payers is to set a minimum order (usually falling somewhere between twenty and fifty dollars). Because the minimum child support order is for a flat amount and cannot be adjusted downward regardless of the level of actual earnings, it is a higher percentage of income for those obligors with the lowest incomes than under a graduated approach. Even in cases where it is undisputed that the noncustodial father is unemployed and earns no salary, a minimum order may be set. Incarcerated fathers, in particular, have been negatively impacted where minimum orders are set and the fathers lack opportunities to earn wages. This practice reflects the policy views that no parents, even very poor parents, should be excused from the legal obligation to support their children and that establishing an award will encourage fathers to make every effort to comply with their support obligations. Unfortunately, this practice results in poor fathers becoming even more impoverished when courts order them to pay support in amounts greater than they can afford.

Finally, the self-support reserve is an approach used in a number of states. It operates to set aside a portion of a payer's income to cover minimal, basic living expenses. The child support award is then calculated based on the remaining income. This approach allows low-income noncustodial parents to retain a portion of their income so that they may maintain at least a subsistence level of living.

Unfortunately, the existence of alternative low-income parent rules does not solve the dilemma of determining the appropriate level of child support to order in cases involving indigent fathers. In practice, the amount of child support that courts actually order no- and low-income fathers to pay often bears no relationship to their actual incomes and far exceeds their abilities to pay. This mismatch between award amounts and low-income fathers' financial means results from several systemic practices, including: establishing default orders, courts imputing income when setting support orders, adding additional costs that the state incurred before the initial child support order was established, and courts failing to modify existing orders downward when circumstances warrant.

1. Default Orders and Imputed Income

The child support guidelines states use to set awards base child support on parents' earned incomes. Often, however, courts establish the child support order for no- and low-income fathers based on imputed earnings rather than actual earnings. The rationale underlying child support imputation of income regulations is that imputation addresses situations where obligors either underreport their incomes or are intentionally underemployed. In imputing income to noncustodial fathers, courts make assumptions about how much the fathers earn or should earn. Generally, a court imputes to the obligor the ability to earn minimum wage and assumes a full-time, forty-hour week, which overestimates the income of low-income parents who lack stable employment and often work fewer than forty hours per week.

Courts typically impute income and enters a default order when a noncustodial father does not appear for his child support hearing. Many disadvantaged fathers are not even aware of the initial proceedings and fail to appear in court because, due to their poverty and insecure living arrangements, they do not receive a copy of their summons. If they fail to appear, courts enter default paternity establishments and child support orders.

Fathers who receive actual notice may, nonetheless, fail to appear at their court hearings. In a number of qualitative empirical studies, Professor David Pate interviewed low-income noncustodial fathers about their experiences with the child support system. The studies show that disadvantaged fathers fail to participate in child support proceedings for a number of reasons. First, some fathers complained about the negative reception they perceived in the Milwaukee courthouse because they were viewed as deadbeat dads. Second, they do not appreciate the consequences (the entry of default orders and significant financial obligations) of failing to appear at their court hearings.

The establishment of child support orders by default is widespread and contributes to the problem of large arrearages. For example, in 2000, 70 percent of the noncustodial parents with arrears [in California] had their awards established by default. Even when an obligor appears for his proceeding and has valid defenses to the imputation of income, without attorney representation, it is very unlikely that he will be effective in providing evidence about his income and inability to pay.

The practice of setting minimum child support orders and/or default orders can, particularly in the case of very low- and no-income fathers, leads to an overestimation of the actual income of low- and no-income fathers who are unemployed or underemployed, working intermittently or on a part-time basis. Consequently, the resulting child support order is high relative to the fathers' actual incomes. This further causes the build-up of onerous child support debt, which further burdens disadvantaged fathers.

2. Retroactive Support Orders and Debt

On top of inflated orders resulting from imputed income and minimum awards, fathers of children receiving welfare are often required to reimburse states for additional welfare costs the states incurred before courts established the initial child support orders. Many states charge . . . arrearages . . . immediately with the imposition of retroactive child support that dates as far back as the birth of the child in some states, or in others, to the beginning of welfare receipt. Additionally, courts may require fathers to reimburse the costs of welfare benefits previously paid to their families. Courts may add Medicaid childbirth costs to initial orders as well. Other add-ons include fees for paternity testing, litigation costs, interest on the arrearages owed, and penalties for not paying.

As a result, at the time court sets an order, the order is front-loaded with welfare costs (sometimes in the thousands of dollars) that the court retroactively imposes on noncustodial fathers. Coupled with imputed earnings, these practices result in child support orders that often exceed fifty percent of reported earnings among low-income fathers and burden them with unmanageable child support arrearages from the outset.

3. Failure To Modify Child Support Orders

Poor noncustodial fathers are also unlikely to have courts adjust their child support orders downward to reflect detrimental changes in their financial circumstances, such as job loss or decreased earnings. State child support guidelines allow parents to seek modification of their child support orders upon a showing that there has been substantial change in their circumstances that warrants adjustment. The obligor's involuntary unemployment or underemployment typically qualifies as the type of substantial change in circumstances that justifies a decrease in the amount of the child support order. On the other hand, downward modifications in child support orders are not available to obligors who attempt to shirk their parental responsibilities by intentionally reducing their earnings. Thus, courts reject requests for child support modifications if there is evidence that the noncustodial parent is voluntarily unemployed (or underemployed).

Although the employment status of low-income noncustodial fathers is often unstable and precarious, courts typically do not modify child support orders to reflect reduced earnings. Even though child support laws specifically allow for such adjustments, numerous problems limit the implementation of the rule. Poor fathers lack access to counsel who could seek modification on their behalf when their earnings decline. They are also unlikely to file pro se petitions in courts for downward modification. A recent study examining the experience of low-income families with the child support system revealed that many poor fathers lacked awareness of the child support system and related court processes, so much so that they did not know that they could seek a downward modification of their child support orders or what steps to follow to obtain reductions in the awards.

Incarcerated fathers, in particular, are unlikely to secure modifications, even though they earn little or nothing during their periods of confinement. There is not one consistent approach among states concerning how to address child support obligations and accumulated debt of imprisoned fathers. The divergent state practices reflect competing policy views regarding whether incarceration is voluntary unemployment. One group of states treats incarceration as voluntary unemployment and refuses to grant prisoners' requests to modify child support. This approach reflects the policy view that it would be tantamount to rewarding a parent's criminal behavior if a court took into account the parent's incarceration when calculating his or her child support obligation.

Other states' approaches include either treating incarceration as a factor to take into account when considering modification requests or having a categorical rule that allows for suspension of child support obligations during the periods of confinement. These alternative rules, which more directly tie child support payments to the earning capacities of noncustodial parents, reflect a more realistic approach to the economic condition of imprisoned obligors. Further, states that employ this approach recognize that if incarcerated parents accumulate staggering child support debts during their confinement, they will likely be less inclined to comply with their child support orders or otherwise be involved with their children when released from prison. Even in states where incarceration may be a permissible basis for modification, it is nevertheless unlikely that child support orders will be reduced. The parent must still make a formal, legal request for a modification. Because many low-income fathers do not make these requests, their incarcerations lead to further build-up of their child support debts.

Generally, poor and/or incarcerated fathers cannot look to state child support offices to update their orders when circumstances warrant. This barrier exists even though the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act requires that state agencies review and adjust all support orders for TANF families on a triennial basis. Despite the law, there is a small likelihood that state agencies will pursue the adjustment of orders. A recent study found that child support orders are generally not responsive to changes in noncustodial parents' earnings. Although sixty percent of child support orders examined in the study met the requirements for modification, only eight percent of those child support orders were modified. The authors of the study reflected that given the large number of noncustodial fathers who experienced a significant change in income, it would be administratively challenging for child support agencies to adjust all of the eligible orders. The child support system does not have administrative processes in place to promptly respond to frequent job changes (and losses) with corresponding changes to child support orders.

Further, where downward modifications of child support awards are concerned, states' fiscal interests are diametrically opposed to the economic interests of noncustodial fathers whose children receive welfare benefits. States have an incentive not to update orders when fathers' incomes decrease because such updates result in potential revenue losses for states. Empirical data assessing modification practices in several states confirm that child support offices tend not to pursue modifications in cases where child support orders would be reduced.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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