Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Minority Report - *New* Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines

Dr. Ned HOLSTEIN - Executive Director of Massachusetts Fathers and Families (MAFF), was a member of the Massachusetts Child Support Guideline Task Force and put together a dissenting opinion. Background information can be found at

It is his position that Child Support Guidelines should require payments sufficient for both parents to equitably meet the important needs of their children. Above those levels of support, additional, excessive child support orders impair the payor’s parenting and thus have adverse consequences for children that far outweigh the benefits.1

At issue is the negative effects of excessive child support orders. They diminish the standard of living children enjoy in the payor’s2 household. They alienate payors, require them to work excessive hours, and may force them to live far from their children, making parenting time impractical and potentially isolating children from friends and activities during such times. Very excessive child support orders may present payors with the constant threat of incarceration despite the best of intentions.

Here is a summary of key points:

  • Under federal law, Massachusetts must review its Guidelines not less than every four years, and revise them if it seems appropriate. Here are the new ones effective Jan 1, 2009. They must be next reviewed again by January 1, 2013. Existing orders and judgments less than three years old as of date of these guidelines shall not be modified unless the income of one or both parties changes or new circumstance warrants.3
  • Determining the Child Support Guidelines has been given to the Chief Justice for Administration and Management (“CJAM”) Robert A. Mulligan. Over two years ago, Chief Justice Mulligan appointed a Task Force to advise him on the revision. This process has been significantly improved to be more open and transparent as A) The twelve members who advised CJAM are no longer secret and included Dr. Ned HOLSTEIN to represent men and payors views (9 lawyers included 6 women and men until one member retired) and B) 13 public hearings were held across the state, hundreds of non-custodial parents and others testifying. C) In addition to a majority report by the Task Force, a minority report with Dissenting Viewpoints was presented. (
  • Principle 3 which encouraged the courts “To provide the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the family been intact” was dropped from the 2009 Guidelines. Despite being noble it was rarely achieved in practice without impoverishing the Payor, which is not in a child’s best interest. In the 2009 Guidelines it now reads "to meet the child’s survival needs in the first instance, but to the extent either parent enjoys a higher standard of living, to entitle the child to enjoy that higher standard."
  • The $20,000 "head start" for custodial parents that disregarded the first $20,000 of income in child support calculations has been abandoned. This provision no longer exists. All income of the custodial parent now counts.
  • The automatic 10% increase in the child support order for children age 13 or over has been eliminated.
  • In the past it was extremely difficult to get a child support order modified by the court unless one's income varied by at least 20%. Any change in income is now sufficient to qualify one to be heard in court for a modification. [Editor: Obviously the burden of time/cost just to appear in court will disabuse frivolous cases.]
  • As shared parenting is the best arrangement for children, the Guidelines should adjust child support orders when there is shared parenting. This principle will be adopted in the 2009 Guidelines for cases where parenting is equal or approximately equal.
  • In the past, the child care credit was only available to the custodial parent, and the cost of child care could be deducted regardless of the reason for putting the child into care. MAFF won provisions that the deduction for child care expenses may be available to either party, and to qualify, child care must in most cases be for the purpose of gainful employment. [Editor: Quite similar to tax rules in Canada, this means existing child-care and health-care expenses can only be applied against employment income.]
  • Under existing Guidelines, whomever pays for Health Insurance recovers half of that cost through an offsetting decrease in their child support order. Now that offset will only be in the range of about 20% to 25%. This will also be the case with child care expenses. [Editor: I like this alot as this is a rough approximation of the net after tax advantage of deducting such health-care expenses BUT more importantly, it introduces a co-sharing of responsibility for these expenses which may mitigates irresponsible "expense downloading".]
  • A major issue for Payors has been the extreme financial distress that excessive child support orders can create. Under current legislation, if a payor took a second job or made overtime it became counted at the time of a subsequent modification of the child support order and he was no better off. Many payors found themselves unable to work their way out of an arrears situation. This has been relaxed somewhat under the new guidelines to allow a judge to exclude such temporary income if it is unlikely to continue in the future, or consider if the extra work is a requirement of the job, and the evaluate the impact of the overtime on a parenting plan at the time of the initial order. If however a payor or recipient obtains a secondary job or begins to work overtime after a child support order is entered, it shall not be considered in a future support order.
No Change
  • For the very poorest payors there is no letup. For someone earning only $7,800 per year, already in poverty, must pay $1,638 in child support for one child, pushing him/her close to homelessness. [Editor: In his Minority Report Dr. HOLSTEIN goes into greater details about the negative effects on low income payors. The guidelines simply require desperately poor men to make token payments they cannot afford and that make little difference to the recipient when compared to the level of social assistance received.]
  • There is no cap on child support for very wealthy Payors. They may still be paying for “three ponies” for the child by court order.
  • The expenses of second families still cannot be used as a reason to decrease an existing child support order, although such expenses still can be used as a defense to a request to increase the child support order. Thus, the well-being of children of second families is often ignored by the Guidelines. A child of a second family is often raised in a household that is quite less well off than the household of the first child, to which child support is being paid.
  • Massachusetts remains the only state other than Hawaii that allows child support to age 23. Except where there are circumstances like "special needs" it is discriminatory to insist divorced parents provide for the post-secondary education of their children when intact families do not have that legal duty. The Task Force declined to place "de minimus" rules for college expenses that can be ordered or recommend reasonable limitations on the payments.
Steps Backward
  • Overall child support levels remain too high. It is clear that Recipients usually have a substantially better standard of living than a Payor unless she/he has little or no earnings of her own. Here are some comparisons:
Table MR1: Low Income Groups - 2009 Guideline Increases
Low Income - A minimum wage payor earns $16,640 annually. If the recipient has no earnings, the proposed child support order will be $4,004. After paying income and payroll taxes, the payor will have $9,978 to live on for the year. At $832 per month rent, the payor will have no money left. The proposed child support order of $4,004 is 13% higher than the $3,546 currently required. (refer to Table MR1: Low Income Groups - 2009 Guideline Increases). Whereas the current guideline order is unpayable, the newly proposed guideline order is still more unpayable.
  • The Guidelines simply require poor people to make payments they cannot afford and which make little difference to the recipient relative to the level of public support. Federal data bear this out as about 70% of the total child support arrears nationwide are owed
    by people earning less than $10,000 per year, and 96% is owed by those earning less than $40,000 per year. Child support debt is almost entirely a problem of poverty. Child support orders for the poor should be lowered, not raised.
Table MR2: Middle Income Groups - Relative Standards of Living

  • Middle-Class - Even these payors will have difficulty remaining active parents to their children under the 2009 Guidelines. In above Table MR2: Middle Income Groups - Relative Standards of Living “Disposable Income” (DI) is the money left after paying Income and payroll taxes, and after paying (or receiving) child support. In the examples above in which the payor and recipient earn equal amounts, the payor will have only about half the disposable income of the recipient after taxes and child support transfers. Even a payor who earns three times as much as the recipient will have less disposable income than the recipient (85%). In addition, the proposed increases will be large - double and triple for many.
  • Massachusetts is in the paradoxical situation that the 2009 Guidelines have adopted a number of principles and concepts for which MAFF has long fought to achieve, but the actual amounts of child support have made an inequitable situation worse in most cases.

1) To some extent children of divorce who experience "asymmetric support" (child support that provides children proportional financial benefits without proportional responsibility) are denied important lesson in life that intact families still enjoy - those oldtime virtues of thrift, self-denial and placing needs of the collective family first.

2) Payors in Massachusetts are known as "debtors" in Alberta (and there is something not so subtle behind that).

3) Other relevant supporting information for The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines can be found here, here, and here .

Massachusetts Child Support Task Force - Majority Report
Massachusetts Child Support Task Force - Minority Report
*New* 2009 Guidelines
*New* 2009 Guidelines Worksheet
*New* 2009 Guidelines Reference Tables

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