Additional Scientific Proof that Child Support Awards are Too High

December 11, 2002

by Roger F. Gay

Arizona State University researcher Sanford Braver performed the largest federally funded study of divorced fathers in history. His revealing book, Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths opened a portal into the character of divorce and post divorce life that crushed more than a decade of anti-father propaganda. Among the myths shattered by his research was the claim that men are economically far better off than women following divorce. Braver is one of the few researchers to include child support, alimony, and other divorce related income in his comparison. He showed that women, as a group, are at least as well off if not better off on a wide range of economic, social, and psychological scales.

In a new book chapter, Sanford Braver takes on the formulae used to calculate child support. The conclusion: these poorly designed formulae produce awards that are so high that they over-shoot any conceivable mark for determining appropriate awards. The chapter is entitled Child Support Guidelines and the Equalization of Living Standards and appears in The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments from Edward Elgar Publishing. (W.S. Comanor, editor)

The unique contribution in this particular chapter are the equations that provide specific information about where guidelines produce child support orders that exceed the goal of equalizing living standards. A detailed example involves the State of Arizona, with a noncustodial parentís gross income set at $3,000 monthly, and two children spending 30% of their time with the noncustodial parent. If the custodial parent brings in more than $1,578, she will have a higher living standard than the noncustodial parent.

It has been previously shown that child support awards contain hidden alimony. This same work presents calculations for spousal support that properly compliment a child support award to achieve a target standard of living in the custodial household. But it is not always appropriate to award spousal support (or alimony). For a variety of legal and straightforward logical reasons, spousal support should not be provided as part of a child support award.

Some advocates have suggested that equalizing the standard of living between two households is a better approach to child support. Judith Cassetty poineered a standard of living equalization method nearly twenty years ago. This method was rejected in all states because equalization of living standards, or equalization of income would provide a margin of alimony or spousal support in many cases. "It is illegal to include spousal support in a child support award," wrote a Washington State guideline review committee, "because spousal support can be awarded separately when appropriate." (This is not so in low income situations. If properly designed, sol equalization may indeed be a good simple preferred approach in welfare cases.)

Comparison of Cassetty's approach with guideline designs currently used in the states shows that current guidelines often produce awards that are much higher than those that would be produced by income or standard of living equalization. [1] Braver takes the analysis farther, producing a set of equations and tables demonstrating that current guidelines often increase custodial parent income by far too much, and correspondingly decrease the standard of living of the paying parent by an unjustifiable amount. He points out that there has been a presumption that custodial parents are typically much poorer than noncustodial parents to begin with, an idea that helped to drive child support reform politically. He asserts that there is no reason today to assume that the situation is not reversed in a majority of cases.

Spousal support is not child support. Including a margin of spousal support in presumptively correct child support formulae results in orders to pay spousal support in many cases where it is inappropriate. There are also tax consequences. Child support payments are made from payers' after-tax income and received tax free by custodial parents. The tax obligations on alimony are the opposite. Thus, courts engage in a tax fraud conspiracy every time they order alimony or spousal support hidden in a child support award.

Braver performs specific calculations showing the consequences of ignoring the tax burden. An example is a couple in Oklahoma with three children and each parent with gross monthly earnings of $2000. The child support payment is $400 per month. But the payer must also pay $222 more per month in taxes (-622), while the child support recipient receives an additional $250 per month (+650) from the Earned Income Credit and the Child Tax Credit. After this transfer, she will have more than twice his spendable (i.e., after tax, after child support) income. From this reduced income, the "noncustodial" parent must set up a household for his children and support them directly 25-30 percent of the year while the "custodial" parent receives the financial benefits but is not caring for the children.

Braver's new analysis adds to other evidence to produce a scientific certainty that the use of presumptively correct child support guidelines has resulted in unjustifiably high child support awards.

Roger F. Gay



1.Robert G. Williams, Development of Guidelines for Child Support Orders: Final Report, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child Support Enforcement, March 1987.

Roger F. Gay is a professional analyst and director of Project for the Improvement of Child Support Litigation Technology.
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