It was about 23 years ago, when I started my own solo practice, that I started doing family law – dissolutions of marriage, modifications of custody and support, paternity cases, etc.
This was also before I had children of my own, although not long before, and I had much to learn.
And while family law cases may be less complex legally than litigating tort liability, breach of contract, insurance coverage, or the Uniform Commercial Code, family law brings forth its own set of unique challenges.
One issue that has been the object of enlightenment for me over the years has been child support.
Twenty years or so ago, Missouri promulgated rules designed to systematize and make child support determinations more uniform, based on a formulaic worksheet, rather than judges just picking a number out of the air.
The worksheet, commonly known as a Form 14, is a whole page of boxes and lines and factors and calculations that spit out a number at the bottom that is designated as the “presumed” child support amount.
Courts may adopt the presumed amount, or deviate up or down, as they may see fit.
In many cases, there is great room for difference of opinion on the numbers and factors that go into the Form 14 in any given case, and the resulting presumed amount. Each box on the chart can sometimes be disputed, be it the parties’ true income, the manner of handling extraordinary child rearing expenses, how health insurance is to be handled, and adjustments for parenting time.
I remember in one of my first divorce cases, before I had kids, commenting to the other attorney how the child support chart was financially oppressive for dads.
My opposing counsel was older than me, more experienced at family law, and was in the middle of raising kids of his own.
“Child support is a bargain,” he told me. “If all I had to do was run a Form 14, and send a check across town, I’d be dollars ahead. Because when you’re raising children, that money just goes.”
In the years since I have learned first-hand, he was quite right. Kids are expensive. Of course for me, and most people who experience the love of a child, they’re worth every penny, and more. But do plan on letting loose of a few dollars from time to time if you’re going to have kids – maybe more than a few. Make that a lot.
Over the years, I have many times been disappointed and even disgusted by fathers who can and often do earn a decent income, but whose goal in life is to avoid contributing to the support of their children in any meaningful way.
One ploy is for these fathers to try to push for winning custody, or at least a 50/50 time splitting arrangement to avoid paying support. Some mothers agree to that, and oftentimes, as soon as the deal is done, those fathers often quit exercising their time.
Plus, under the Missouri child support scheme, 50/50 usually does not mean no child payment, in that in most families, there is one parent who takes responsibility for seeing that the children have shoes that fit, clean clothes, lunch money, field trip money, get their hair cut, get their vaccinations, go to the dentist, get picked up from school or day care when they get sick, have birthday parties, take presents to birthday parties, get special clothes for special occasions, and a whole host of basic niceties that are part of raising a child.
Usually, but not always, it is the mother.
Another common scenario: the father usually makes, or has the ability to make, substantially more money than the mother.
It’s just the way it tends to be, and I believe that the income disparity that often exists between mothers and fathers is a reflection of family dynamics that spill over into the workplace.
Imagine a man who goes to his superior during a busy workday and says: “Boss, I have to leave. I’ve got a sick kid, and I’ve got to go get him at school and take care of him.”
That man may well meet a very boss-like response such as: “What are you talking about? If you leave, then don’t bother coming back. I need you here. We’re really busy, @#$%& it.” That’s what a well-compensated male employee may hear.
But if a mother does the same thing in the workplace, the reaction of the boss tends to be a lot different, “Oh, well, OK. Let us know when you think you’ll be able to get back here. Think it will be today? Tomorrow? Please let us know as soon as you can.”
This workplace dynamic is, in my assessment, a big factor in the prevalent income disparity between mothers and fathers, and it tends to exist whether parents are together or not.
That’s why, when parents are not together, one parent still needs to fulfill this role in children’s lives, often to their financial detriment in the workplace, and the other parent needs to contribute financially to the support of the children, just as with parents who are together.
That’s why we have a child support chart, a Form 14, and rules that are designed to see that children’s basic needs are covered by their parents, and that both parents contribute to the needs of the children, whether their parents are together, or not.
-- Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org