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The Reality of Child Support

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When I wrote about child support recently I knew I was touching on a hot topic, but I was still surprised at the high emotional level of conversation in the comments that followed. To be clear, I wasn't advocating the implementation of some kind of draconian accountability system for how child support payments are utilized. While I don't think it's a bad idea on paper, the reality is that it would require another level of bureaucracy in an already dysfunctional system (in most states) , and would be nearly impossible to enforce. I was, however, suggesting, that the parent receiving excess support payments ("excess" definable by the conscience of that parent) put the extra money away for the child. In a college fund, for the down payment on their first car or apartment, etc.

A few people berated me for being vague in terms of my exact situation. Obviously that was intentional. I didn't want the post to be about me, but I was willing to use my personal experience and that of various friends to question the status quo. In doing so I learned something from the ensuing conversation. According to the comments posted, a great many people paying and receiving child support feel they're being abused. With much passion from both sides. It's hard to tell from such an informal survey whether in equal numbers on both sides, but certainly both have their share of horror stories. Both sides. From people getting pathetically little compared to their cost of living to take care of their child full-time to joint-custodial parents paying thousands of dollars a month to a self-sufficient ex-spouse.

My main takeaway from the conversation was that the system most states use to determine and enforce spousal and child support doesn't work very well. That's not to say that if a divorced couple has the wherewithal to pay court and legal fees and a willingness and ability to repeatedly show up in court or mediation together they can't find that perfect formula, but that's not the case for everyone. Even if it were free, filing court petitions and attending hearings are time consuming. Taking care of kids is a full-time job even if you only have them 50% of the time, and hearings usually occur during the day when most people are working. Just thinking about it makes me tired. So, yes, if someone is getting the shaft in the post-divorce support situation there is legal recourse, it's often just not very realistic to pursue.

What I read over and over again in the comments was that many people have been badly impacted by the system, are now struggling because of it, and are at a loss as to any remedy. This is one of those situations where one can see a problem very clearly and from every angle, but not even a hint of where the solution lies in terms of the system itself. Is anyone even working on it? Probably not. Then what's the solution? Don't get married? Don't have kids? Don't get divorced? If you do get married and have kids make sure you have a giant legal fund put away in case you get divorced? None of the above, obviously. People don't think about divorce when they're getting married and having kids and never will.

I was talking with a friend over the weekend about divorce and settlements and such. We've both been divorced for many years and have very accommodating attitudes in terms of scheduling with the exes. As 50-50 parents it often benefits everyone to allow for those unexpected business trips or nearly missed soccer practice drop-offs (especially the kids, of course). She pointed out that she wasn't always that way. In the beginning, the schedule was the schedule. As if it were written in stone. It's like that in the aftermath of divorce. It's never, "We're sticking to the schedule because the court says so." It's, "We're sticking to the schedule because I hate you!"

What's often missing is something even the most perfect state family law system can't fix. Cooperation and empathy. From everyone, for everyone. I know, this is often impossible given the baggage that led up to the divorce, but for most parents the bottom-line is the welfare of the child, which hopefully goes beyond the monetary and way beyond hurt and anger.

I've heard good advice that parents put themselves in each other's shoes to see if there might be a different perspective from that side of the fence, but I find that it's even more important to put myself in my children's place to see from their perspective what I'm teaching them.