“Let’s Do This Instead of Child Support”

There are many reasons to use traditional child support between parents after divorce:

– It’s a simple mathematical calculation in nearly every state. Although there are always judgment calls (for example, dealing with Mom’s and Dad’s incomes), the calculation of child support is remarkably objective in most states and in most cases.

– It’s simple to administer. Most child support payors pay child support by income withholding order. The money gets taken out of their paycheck just like taxes. They get accustomed to it, the money is there each month on a reliable schedule, and life is simpler for everyone. Even for parents who choose to make payments directly, the certainty of a monthly payment helps everyone know what to expect and requires no negotiation.

– It’s simple to collect child support. Every state has procedures to locate delinquent child support payors and get them back on a payment schedule, and an increasing number of states impose interest on unpaid child support, giving parents an extra incentive to stay current.

– Judges like it. For the same reason that people in business once said “nobody gets fired for buying IBM,” we can now say “no judge gets reversed for ordering guideline child support.” The child support guidelines offer a safe haven for judges who want to ease their administrative burden, and as a result, almost all judges routinely order guideline child support whenever possible.

That having been said. in the world of cooperative divorce where I live and work, it’s not at all unusual for one parent (usually the one who would normally be paying guideline child support) to say to the other, “let’s do this other thing instead of child support.” Maybe they will share all expenses 50/50. Maybe one parent will provide a residence or make a house payment or car payment in lieu of child support. Or maybe they will just agree to share expenses on a mutually agreeable basis.

There are many noble reasons why one parent may suggest this to the other. They may be hoping that the alternative arrangement will avoid the coldness of guideline child support. They may be recoiling from the drudgery of a fixed monthly payment and requesting instead a meaningful parenting role in the lives of their children. They may be longing for additional flexibility, so both parents will be able to help when and how they can best serve and can respond to the unexpected needs of the children without needing to go through lawyers and judges to do it.

There’s a more subtle (and I believe, more common) reason, however, why many parents suggest alternatives to child support:

They want to continue to control the other parent, and they want to pay less money to do it.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would encourage custodial parents to be suspicious of and resistant to any arrangement in lieu of child support. There’s just too high an incidence of parents taking advantage of the arrangement. Here are the ways I’ve seen these arrangements fail:

  • The parents plan to have the children spend equal time with both parents, but in reality, one parent ends up being more flexible and more responsible than the other and spends more time with the children. This causes that parent’s expenses to increase, with no child support to cover them.
  • The parents sign a “mutual agreement” arrangement for the expenses of the children, but one parent routinely objects to expenses the other parent considers important, leaving the other parent with the unpleasant choice of paying all the expense or depriving the child.
  • Or “mutual agreement” morphs into the need for one parent always to ask the other parent for money, giving the parent who’s being asked for money inappropriate control over the life of his or her divorced spouse.
  • The parents agree for one to pay a fixed expense like a house payment or a car payment for the other, but the one responsible for paying doesn’t come through, leaving the other parent with the asset at risk and no child support.
  • The parents plan to share expenses for the children, but one of them is perennially short on cash, leaving the other to fill in the slack and no easy way to record the failure to pay.

The good news is that when we figure out these arrangements aren’t working, it’s generally easy to get most judges to order guideline child support going forward. The problem is that by the time it comes to that, one parent feels used by the other, and the children suffer. Why not avoid all that angst and heartache, and just do guideline child support from the beginning?