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Child support reformers want all kids equal
By Shirley Downing
downing@gomemphis.com

http://www.gomemphis.com/mca/local_news/article/0,1426,MCA_437_1361022,00.html

The Commercial Appeal/GoMemphis
September 1, 2002

Julian Pettigrew knows that four plus four equals eight, but Tennessee's
child support system has always told him that not all eight are equal.

Pettigrew has eight children. Five are from previous relationships, one is
from a current marriage and two are stepchildren he's raising. Under
current state child support rules, he gives about 60 percent of his
monthly take home pay to the first four children while he, his wife and
the other four kids live on the rest.

"I'm a father who believes in taking care of my children," said Pettigrew,
a hub manager at Federal Express. But he said the family is barely staying
afloat.

Pettigrew is among the thousands of Tennesseans who could be affected by
two recent state Appeals Court rulings that call for an equalization of
support payments among a payor's children.

Current state rules do not allow the court to consider any children other
than those named in a support order when a judge sets monthly payments.
So, a parent like Pettigrew could be spending more money on children from
previous relationships than on children born later of an existing marriage.

The first ruling is on appeal before the Tennessee Supreme Court. If
upheld, courts across the state could expect a flood of requests from
parents to modify child support.

The impact to custodial parents, and to the state, could be tremendous,
officials said, noting the state counts almost 400,000 active child
support cases, and collects more than $1 million a day in payments.

If the appeals court ruling is upheld, expect a crush of paperwork and an
increased judicial caseload, some observers say.

That could lead to lower child support payments for many custodial
parents - possibly thrusting many back onto the welfare rolls - and
considerably fewer dollars to the state Department of Human Services as
reimbursement for welfare payments. "It will have an impact on child
support collections at the state level because the amount of money that is
collected is diminished," said Dan Michael, chief counsel to Juvenile
Court Judge Kenneth Turner.

"Say you have a mother with one child born out of wedlock and the father
then married and has three other children.

"The support to that first mother may be cut by two-thirds because now you
would have to consider those children in the home. And if that money
(collected in child support to the first family) was going to repay the
state for funds expended through welfare benefits, that money then will
drop. So it could very easily affect not only what the mother receives but
what the state receives."

Reaction to the rulings is mixed. The Tennessee Department of Human
Services, which sets state child support rules, and Juvenile Court, which
enforces them, are taking a wait-and-see position.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issues broad guidelines
for the collection of child support but requires states to establish the
court-ordered rates. Consequently, rules vary from state to state, said
Bill Duffey of Nashville, project director for child support policy with
Tennessee DHS.

Current guidelines call for a portion of the payor's net income to be paid
for each child in a support order, ranging from 21 percent for one child
to 50 percent for five or more children.

Duffey said the state decided to set payments based on a percentage per
child because that made it fairly easy for the court, attorneys and
parents to understand.

He said it was assumed the rules would cover a majority of cases, while
allowing a judge the discretion to vary the amount, depending on
circumstances.

Critics hope the Supreme Court review will trigger a look at the whole
system, which they feel is sharply skewed against the non-custodial parent.

Kay Farese Turner, a Memphis family law attorney, said that under current
guidelines, a father making $200,000 a year would be required to spend 21
percent of his net income - possibly $2,000 to $3,000 a month - for a
small child whose needs may be no more than $500 or $600 a month.

The difference essentially goes to the custodial spouse as nontaxable
income, "which is like a windfall to her, better than alimony because it
is nontaxable," she said.

Divorce lawyer David Caywood said he has long felt the guidelines, which
date to 1989, were unconstitutional because they allow unequal payments to
a payor's children.

Another portion of the law penalizes small business owners, he said.
Guidelines don't allow for the deduction of office expenses when arriving
at a parent's income for support purposes, a rule he called "grossly unfair."

"The people who wrote the guidelines never had to make a payroll,"
Caywood said as he called for more oversight of child support collection.

Some critics said the only fair way to calculate child support is on an
individual basis, - not with a chart - but that means more work for judges.

"There is just no incentive for DHS or the judiciary . . . especially
juvenile court . . . to reform," said Larry Henson, a father's rights
activist and flight dispatcher at FedEx. "To reform child support and base
it on the actual and provable costs of the child would drastically reduce
the money coming into Juvenile Court and DHS coffers."

Henson believes child support is a moneymaker for the state and courts,
and noted that for years, courts charged a 5 percent collection fee until
the federal government put a stop to the practice last year.

Much of the government's child support collection efforts are based on
wrong assumptions, he said.

"For years, the myth was that the majority of women were on welfare
because the fathers were refusing to take part and pay support. But in
reality, most of the women on welfare are having children with men on
welfare, so you have got two people in poverty having kids that they can't
support," Henson contends.

Many of the men who fall behind on child support simply don't have a job
or the education to get one, he said.

"You can't get blood from a turnip."

But at Juvenile Court, Michael said he believes the current system is fair.

"Guidelines are promulgated by the feds so that states are assured of
collecting child support to reimburse the state for welfare payments or to
make sure the custodial parent receives what is due.

"Any time you norm down a rule, there are people on either end that it is
not going to impact equally. The guidelines are an attempt to fit the
norm. In those cases where they don't fit the norm, the court has always
had the discretion to deviate from those guidelines and we continue to do
that, but judiciously."

Michael said he grows weary when he hears a parent complain that he has
to pay a large part of his income to support a child or children. "Child
support guidelines are designed to ensure that children get what they need
in their lives," he said. "That is the whole point of child support."

Copyright 2002, GoMemphis. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial Appeal/GoMemphis Home: 
http://www.gomemphis.com/mca/home/
===
Related articles:

Child support equity on the way
[Tennessee Appellate Court Sends Message: Second Families Count]
http://www.gomemphis.com/mca/opinion_columnists/article/0,1426,MCA_539_1339424,00.html
by Thompson & Sacks  -- GoMemphis, 23 Aug 02

DHS keeps child support rules intact
Waits for high court to settle issue
http://www.gomemphis.com/mca/local_news/article/0,1426,MCA_437_1322102,00.html
by Shirley Downing -- GoMemphis, 13 Aug 02

Tennessee child support rules struck down
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http://www.gomemphis.com/mca/local_news/article/0,1426,MCA_437_1317783,00.html
by Shirley Downing -- GoMemphis, 10 Aug 02
       
 

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