Smart Separation

Child Support: Rich House, Poor House

Every so often I’m reminded why the child support formula is a really bad idea for some families. This week was one of those weeks, when I encountered two distressing family stories:

In both of these families, the father earns very significant amounts of money. Very. In both cases the conflict between the parents is off the scale. And in both cases, the father pays child support according to the formula, which is nothing like the standard of living the children in either of these families have been used to.

‘We live a very extravagant life with Dad, he buys us anything we want, but it’s in stark contrast to the life we live with Mum. It’s so obvious to us how much she is battling even to keep the lights on. We know she can barely pay the bills or buy the food.This makes our life incredibly difficult’. Aaron 15

‘If you want the kids to go to private school, send them to live with me full time. If they don’t live with me, they don’t get private school’.
 Jeff, 45 year old father of four children, to their mother.

Both of these Dads show all the signs of being good Dads, and of loving their kids. At least that’s how it looks from the outside. But what kind of love is it that says to children that “When you are with me, (and I can see how you benefit from money spent on you), this is how we live, but when you go back to Mum’s house and live a harder life, its not because I love you less on those days?” Really?

Most separated parents these days would know that conflict between them is bad for their kids. Sadly, its not every parent who recognises their own bad behaviour as the sort that harms their kids. I’ve never met a parent who didn’t love their kids, and say they wanted the best for them during and after separation. But I have met many parents who can’t see that what they are doing is all about their relationship with their ex, and that Yes, even in their case, their kids are hurting.

In the above cases, the kids are hurt by having their needs ignored when they themselves are not visible, and by seeing the contempt one parent has for the other.

The child support formula is a rescue for families where the carer parent would otherwise get little or nothing. But it is a formula, and it bears no relationship to the standard at which individual families have lived. It allows wealthy parents to hide behind their legal obligations, as opposed to their obligation to care for the best interests of their children.

How did we get into this situation with the formula? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, politics and interest groups got us here.

Any income above $178,000 is ignored in deciding how much child support is to be paid. In both of the cases above, the fathers earn many times the cap, and could make sure that life in both houses is pleasant.

This is not a story about poor little rich kids, but about kids who are asked to suffer the consequences of their parents’ dislike for each other, and for whom the pay-off of luxury days is also part of their burden.

So what’s the fix?

The obvious but politically difficult fix is to raise the cap on income.

Another fix is for parents to seek help to understand the real costs of their children, what it means for their children to run the gauntlet of rich house/poor house, and decide to share their resources fairly. And who are the best people for this job? The Divorce financial Planners and Child Psychologists. That’s who.