What is the Problem with Child Support in California?
Ask any parent with a California child support order this question: Are you happy with your current child support order?
You may hear many different answers, but “yes” will not be among them. Whether you ask a parent receiving child support payments or making support payments pursuant to a California order, they are not happy with their child support order.
Parents receiving child support invariably feel they are entitled to a higher support amount, and parents paying support invariably believe they are paying too much. Why is that?
Plenty of family law litigants are content with their child custody orders, marital settlement agreements, property division orders, and even spousal support orders. Child support is intended to benefit your child, so why is it that parents universally feel slighted by the amount of child support they pay or receive?
Put simply, what is the problem with child support in California?
How Child Support is Calculated in California
In order to understand what is going wrong with child support, a general understanding of how child support is calculated is necessary. Family Code 3900 provides that every child has the right to be financially supported by both parents, and parents share an equal responsibility to support their children.
California child support is dictated by the principles enumerated in Family Code 4053, including among others, the following:
(a) A parent’s first and principal obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent’s circumstances and station in life.
(b) Both parents are mutually responsible for the support of their children.
(c) The guideline takes into account each parent’s actual income and level of responsibility for the children.
(d) Each parent should pay for the support of the children according to his or her ability.
(e) The guideline seeks to place the interests of children as the state’s top priority.
(f) Children should share in the standard of living of both parents. Child support may therefore appropriately improve the standard of living of the custodial household to improve the lives of the children.
(g) Child support orders in cases in which both parents have high levels of responsibility for the children should reflect the increased costs of raising the children in two homes and should minimize significant disparities in the children’s living standards in the two homes.
The amount of child support in the State of California is determined by Family Code 4055, which provides Statewide Uniform Guidelines for Determining Child Support (Cal Fam. Code § 4052). According to Family Code 4053 (k), the amount of child support established by the formula is presumed to be the correct amount of child support to be ordered in all cases.
This guideline formula takes into account the following factors:
- The actual average monthly income of each parent;
- The tax filing status of each parent;
- The number of children these parents have together;
- The actual percentage of time the child spends with each parent;
- Court-ordered child support paid for the benefit of children from other relationships;
- Health insurance premiums paid by either or both parties;
- Mandatory retirement contributions by either or both parties;
- Mandatory union dues paid by either or both parties.
The two factors parents generally find themselves litigating over are #1 and #4.
Proving a parent’s actual income can get tricky when they own a closely held business or are voluntarily suppressing their income, but the complications this can create are not the heart of the overarching dissatisfaction with California child support. These are issues arising anytime income must be proven in litigation and are not unique to California child support.
The problem is #4: the amount of parenting time each parent has with this child/these children.
In the early 1900’s, child support in California was not a strict parental duty for both parents upon divorce. If one parent was awarded sole physical custody, the other was “under no obligation to provide such children any support or education beyond” what was granted in the divorce decree. (Lewis v. Lewis, (1917) 174 Cal. 336, 339). The presumption was that if a parent was denied access to a child, the parent should not have to continue to provide support. Conversely, if awarded sole custody, the parent was expected to support and educate the child without assistance.
California family courts began moving away from this view in the 1960’s. By the late 1960’s, regardless of any agreement between the parents, the notion that a parent without custody or visitation had no supportive duty was gone. Courts determined that even though parents could divorce, it did not mean that parents could also divorce their children. (Elkind v. Bych, (1968) 68 Cal.2d 453, 457 ).
Modernly, the custodial timeshare is a crucial factor in determining child support payments—the more time a parent has, the less that parent pays in support obligations. This timeshare is the approximate percentage of time a parent has ‘primary physical responsibility’ for the child. When making this determination, the family court applies the best interest standard.
Once the court weighs the various best interest factors, it will award a custody timeshare, and the child support order will be based on that timeshare percentage.
Once child support has been determined, it can only be modified (reduced, increased, or terminated) by a showing of a material change of circumstances. Courts determine what constitutes a material change on a case-by-case basis. Valid reasons for requesting a modification may include a change in the other parent’s income or employment status, or if one parent can show a higher custodial timeshare (i.e. increased visitation with the child).
The Problem with Calculating Child Support Based on Parenting Time Percentage
“He/She only wants more time with our kid so he doesn’t have to pay child support!”
“I have to pay way too much child support because she/he is refusing to let me see our kid!”
“I can’t afford to see my kid more often because I have to work so much to afford these child support payments!”
“Do I have to let the other parent visit our kid if he/she isn’t making child support payments?”
“He/She only filed a Request for child custody because I filed for child support!”
These are just a few examples of the most common grievances parents with a California child support order have when they first come to see a family law attorney.
Each and every one of them are valid concerns, and examples of the problems created by the inclusion and focus on the percentage of parenting time element in the California child support equation.
Although the California Legislature does not state how the formula furthers its goal of safeguarding a child’s best interests, one may infer that California lawmakers believe the best interests of the child depend on the frequency of contact with each parent. On its face, the parenting time element in the support calculation seems to incentivize parents to spend time with their children, but there is no reason given to include it in every child support calculation. In reality, the formula seems to incentivize parents to focus on their purse strings rather than their children.
Often, a parent who requests, and is awarded, more time and lower support payments fails to actually spend more time with the child. After a parent’s failed commitment to spend time with the child, it is rare that the other parent will return to court to seek an adjustment to the new order. On the other hand, a parent who may normally agree to give their co-parent more time with the child may be hesitant to do so for fear of losing their child support.
Although the California uniform child support guideline formula seeks to ensure the best interests of the minor child, in reality the formula lends itself to parental abuse for financial gain. Parents are able to run a strict numbers game and reduce their child support costs by seeking more custodial time.
Parenting is not about spending large quantities of time with a child, but rather, it is about the quality of time a parent spends with the child.
Contact a Family Law Lawyer Handling Child Support Disputes in California Today
If you have questions about child support or anything else contained in this article, contact our accomplished and dedicated family law, divorce, and child custody lawyers by calling (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or contact us online for a free consultation with our experienced family law attorney, Colleen Sparks, who can guide you through the court process in a prompt and clear manner.
Our knowledgeable attorneys can also help if you have questions about any of the following:
- Child Custody and Visitation
- Restraining Orders
- Child Support
- Family Law Contempt