Child Support Guidelines

by Roger F. Gay

When asked for a formal, public explanation for why we need presumptive child support guidelines, supporters give few reasons. Typically, they say that presumptively correct guidelines lead to uniformity, simplify the decision process, and provide greater certainty as to the outcome. They also speculate that certainty will lead to less litigation because there is less reason for it.

(This last bit of speculation never came true and higher courts remain under pressure from an unusually high number of appeals year after year.)

In less public situations, the discussion is much different. A judge sitting on a state panel on gender bias in Virginia put a word in a male activist’s ear; that presumptive guidelines produce unreasonably high “child support” awards in order to equal out the difference in income between men and women. Many “women’s rights” activists view child support as inseparable from spousal support or alimony and therefore argue that there is no reasonable limit to the amount of a child support award.

Even academic studies provide a different view of what the new reformed vision of child support is about. One study that became part of the foundation of the political reform movement was written up by Elaine Sorensen at The Urban Institute. Her federally funded study twisted through a series of statistical speculations to conclude that after paying the current level of child support, some fathers still had some money left over. This news sent advocates off to pressure the federal government to get more of it.

The political discussion that led to sweeping federal reform never really had a responsible flavor. The phrase deadbeat dads was used to justify anything. In the beginning, proponents claimed that reforms would bring down welfare spending. It was clear to reasonable analysts from the beginning that they wouldn’t. When tied down to reasonable questions from opponents, advocates within government could only say that reason didn’t matter. They were going to do it anyway. You know — deadbeat dads. After more than a decade in practice, the failure of the reforms to reduce welfare costs keep all but the least well informed in check.

Perhaps the least likely reason to be discussed in legislative debate and by child support commissions is given in federal statute. Federal law requires the use of child support guidelines in all child support decisions. It also requires that the use of a guideline results in an appropriate award in each and every case. The least likely issue to be discussed is whether the use of a state’s guideline actually results in appropriate awards in each case. Somewhere in the process of implementation, this central federal requirement has been forgotten.

Most states use the Income Shares model for child support guidelines designed by child support collection entrepreneur Robert G. Williams of Policy Studies, Inc.(PSI) Williams’ collections company receives a percent of collections, presenting a conflict of interest. Advocacy groups representing payers have been concerned as well about the conflict of interest of the states themselves. Additional federal funding to states is provided in proportion to the amount of child support paid in a state. The majority of those who are involved in developing states’ child support guidelines today have direct financial incentives for arbitrarily increasing award amounts.

(For more information on the influence of Policy Studies, Inc., see Child Support Policy and Robert Williams,, July, 1999.)

The PSI model gained popularity in the states when it was published by the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child Support Enforcement as “technical assistance” to the states in developing their federally mandated guidelines. No competition was held by the legal community to determine the best model. The PSI model was adopted even though it did not correspond to established legal principles, was not developed by experts in making awards, and has never, in any way, been validated.

(Some proponents claim that there is no limit to the amount that can be awarded as child support, thus validation is not an issue to them. For more information about separating child support and alimony, see The Alimony Hidden in Child Support,, June, 1999.)

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Copyright © 2000 Roger F. Gay
All rights reserved.