A recent article authored by a pair researchers at The University of Texas at Austin – one of them a professor, one of them a PhD candidate – raises the question of whether our state’s child support policies are unfair to fathers.
Simply put, the article asks whether noncustodial fathers are forced to pay too much. It’s noted that, at present, there are more than 14 million open child support cases in the U.S., and that in the majority of these the fathers are behind on payments. And the authors concede that in many situations the men deserve legal punishment. “After all,” they write, “there are definitely fathers who…are shirking their responsibility, mad at their exes, or believe that they have been mistreated by the court.”
However, the researchers go on to suggest that much of the time men are legitimately unable to pay. More than 80 percent of back child support pay, they claim, is owed by fathers making less than $20,000 a year – that is, by fathers whose income places them near or below the poverty line.
“This is a modern issue,” the authors write, one which “emerged from the historical context of family life, and the law and policy are lagging behind our evolving culture.”
How is child support determined?
In Texas, child support is paid by the noncustodial parent – in most cases, the father – and is a percentage of his net income. Net income, generally speaking, includes any form of funds an individual receives in a given year. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Overtime pay
- Retirement benefits
- Disability income
- Rental income
- Trust income
A few expenses, such as federal taxes, union dues and health insurance costs (for one’s children), may be deducted from the income considerations.
Once the noncustodial parent’s net income is calculated, child support will figure as a fixed percentage thereof. This figure will vary depending on the number of children one has. For instance, a father with one child will give up 20 percent of his monthly income to support payments; with two children, 25 percent; with three children, 30 percent, and so on.
Can support orders be modified?
Generally, support orders are fixed. They do not fluctuate if the parent makes more one month and less the next; rather they remain constant for years.
But in certain situations a parent can petition to have the amount of support modified. According to the Texas Attorney General, such situations include:
- When there is “material and substantial change” in the circumstances of a child affected by the support order
- When more than three years have passed since the last child support order was made
- When the parent is paying an amount vastly different from what the child support guidelines require
Still, modifying an order isn't easy. Usually it requires both parents to show up in court, and navigating through a range of legal proceedings.
Why might the guidelines change?
Yet it is often the case that fathers without any means are compelled to pay support. Minors and college students, for example, are still expected to pay – and it is difficult for them to avoid punishment when they cannot. Likewise, men who are between jobs, or making low wages, often face stiff penalties when they cannot pay support.
The researchers at UT suggest that the entire system be reviewed. “Child support policies should more closely reflect parents’ realistic ability to pay,” they say, noting how hard it is to modify a support order even when a father suffers a steep loss of income.
One hopes that any revisions to the law will make it fairer for all parties involved, and with the children's needs put first. As the present article notes, “there are many low-income men who are ready to the kind of present father that their children need…Laws and policies need to find ways to help those fathers…who want to be there for their kids.”