09/28/2012 12:21 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Should The Richer Parent Get Custody?


Awhile back, in the middle of my god-awful custody battle, there was a moment when I thought I might have to pay my wealthy ex-husband child support.

I ended up giving him full custody of my son because I could no longer afford legal fees to continue the fight to hold onto custody. I still have primary custody of my daughter, which is the only reason I don't have to pay my ex support. We continue to split half the kids' unreimbursed medical expenses, and certain other kid-related items.

The prospect of someone -- me -- who works full-time for a middle-class salary and has no family money, having to pay child support to someone who has so much family money that he doesn't work, wanders across the border of Ludicrousland and into Heinousville.

But not everyone feels the way I do. One commenter on a blog post I wrote debating whether or not it is reasonable for a significantly poorer parent to pay a rich parent child support stated the following:

"My personal opinion is that, if a parent cannot afford the expenses of having the child with them most of the time, then the child should be with the parent who *can* afford it."

Another commenter on the same post wrote this:

"CS has nothing to do with rich, poor, male, or female. Your ex deserves child support."

My problem with both of these comments is twofold. One, there is the presumption that the richer person is the better parent. Two, there is the complete disregard of the reality of the workforce and inherited wealth. Here are some doses of reality:

- Men still out-earn women. On average, a woman earns 77 percent of a man's salary.

- Women often stop working outside the home to raise children full-time, sometimes because the cost of childcare is so high that it makes more sense for them to stay home.

- After a woman has been out of the workforce for awhile, it is very difficult to just jump back in and earn enough money to adequately provide for children without child support.

- Being independently wealthy does not make someone a better parent. It just makes that parent able to afford more stuff.

Note: None of the above should be interpreted as a blanket statement that women should not pay child support. Sometimes women significantly out-earn men and in those cases it is reasonable that a woman pay her ex-husband child support.

What is the Purpose of Child Support?

Child support was intended to help the less wealthy parent -- usually the mother -- provide adequate housing and necessities for the children. It is simply flat-out wrong to threaten a mother's ability to care for her children by denying her child support. And denying a woman custody, as the commenter suggested above, because she is the poorer parent feels like a move from the Romney-Ryan playbook.

Those who suffer most from this Dickensian treatment of mothers are the children. Children deserve to live with both parents. Children deserve to reside in two homes with a relatively equitable standard of living. Children do not benefit from seeing one parent financially destroy their other parent.

A Good Mother Without Money Can Lose Custody

When I did my clinical training to become a licensed therapist, I worked at a sliding-scale clinic. Often clients would not show up or be late to sessions. On the surface, these clients appeared spacey, lazy and uncommitted to therapy. They appeared to be people who made bad decisions.

But in reality, as our supervisors pointed out, they were poor. Unlike us interns, with our nice cars and our fancy graduate degrees, these clients had been born into poverty. They didn't own cars. If they had jobs, they worked for minimum wage. Missing therapy appointments was not about incompetence, it was about scrambling for childcare and being at the mercy of public transportation and perhaps not even having the money for bus fare.

The downside of privilege is that it distorts reality. It skews our perceptions of people unlike us and convinces us that we are superior. It strips us of compassion, civic duty and accountability. It has led to deregulation of banks, tax cuts for the wealthy, and cuts to social services. It is the very thing that has turned this country from a democracy into an oligarchy.

We assume that non-custodial mothers are mentally ill drug addicts who cavort with pedophiles. Sometimes this is the case. But more often the non-custodial mother loses custody due to financial abuse: the inability to pay astronomical legal fees; the freezing of assets; the reduction or elimination of child support.

A quote from The Custody Project, an organization that provides grants to low-income women at risk of losing custody of their children:

"A financial domino occurs when a mother, defending the custody or visitation of her children, can no longer provide the common necessities of life for her family because her finances have been economically stretched and simultaneously diminished to an unsustainable degree. And in this situation, under bad law, a good mother without money can lose custody."

But Back to My Original Question

More and more I hear about women who are fighting for custody or who have to fight for child support. The landscape of post-divorce life is changing and it is no longer a given that moms will get primary custody and adequate child support. A commenter on a recent Huffington Post article by Kristy Campbell said this:

"Moms who stay at home and count on receiving child support and custody in the event of a divorce in this day and age are taking a risk and it's foolish to pretend otherwise."

While I think using the word "foolish" is a bit harsh, I do agree that no divorcing woman should presume that child support will last. Child support is easily modifiable, either via an ex-husband's loss of employment or ability to hide funds, or evolution in family law.

I still think the poorer parent should get child support. A parent's financial stress trickles down to the children, who feel the lack of funds both materially and psychologically.

I don't think that a mother who's been out of the workforce for years should be expected to go out and find a job that will cover all the costs of raising children.

But I want to know your thoughts: should the richer parent get custody?