Child Support Accountability: Where Is It?

Child support is intended to be just that: support for the children, not the parent with whom they are living.
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The other day a client was in my office discussing the amount of child support he was paying. My client, who is in the entertainment industry, makes a large amount of money. As a result, he pays a fairly significant amount of child support to his ex-wife for their two children. His ex-wife does not work. In addition to that, he pays her spousal support. She also receives half of his royalties accrued during their marriage.

My client was not complaining about the fact that he was paying this money to her, although he certainly would like to pay less. He was telling me a story about how the week prior his daughter came to him needing shoes. Prior to that, she told him she needed an article of clothing for school. In fact, for some time now, on a regular basis both his son and daughter have come to him and asked him to buy them this or that. When he has asked them why they are asking him for these things, they give the same answer: "Mom said your dad needs to take care of it."

My client does provide clothing and other items to his children. They live with him part of the time and have their own clothing and personal effects at his house. What my client is objecting to is paying child and spousal support and then still being put in the situation of either having to supplement those items further by buying these things for his children, or telling his children that he is going to do so. After all, if he is paying child support, it seems that the children's mother should be spending the money on things that his children need. This is not an uncommon situation.

In California, as well as in many other states, there are guidelines in effect which determine the amount of support that someone is to pay the other parent. The guidelines have several factors: the income each parent has, the tax deductible expenses that each party pays, and the amount of time that the children are in the direct care of each party. These child support guidelines are implemented by statutes. There is one thing missing from these statutes, however. That is a requirement that the child support money be used for the children, not for the parent to whom the child support is being paid.

Some states impose limitations on the dollar amount of support to be paid. In these states, such as New York, there is a presumed limit which is intended to insure that the children have basic needs, but also intended to make sure that the parent receiving the payment does not get a windfall. In other states, such as California, this limit does not exist. We often see articles in the tabloids and mainstream press about battles going on in court over child support.

In the cases of children born out of wedlock where the parents do not live together, child support alone can provide sufficient income for the parent who is receiving it to maintain not only the child's lifestyle, but also that parent's. In extreme cases, the payment of child support can mean that the receiving parent does not have to work. Child support is intended to be just that: support for the children, not the parent with whom they are living. One way to counter this problem is to require the parent who is receiving the support to actually spend it on the children. Our statutes go into great detail about how to calculate the amount of support, but they are completely devoid of any requirement which mandates that the parent receiving it account for the expenditure of the money received.

These statutes are devoid of any court procedure to allow a party to question how the money is spent, nor do the statutes grant judges the authority to curtail the amount of support paid or mandate how the support received is expended.

If there were a mechanism in place for oversight, there would be much less abuse of this process. Oddly enough, our legal system gives judges broad discretion to make orders concerning custody arrangements, but it severely limits that discretion over the amount of support paid for the benefit of those very same children.

We expect fiscal accountability on so many levels in our society: of government, of corporations, of financial institutions, of recipients of welfare and food stamps. We are outraged by the fact that lack of personal financial accountability contributed in large part to the housing bust and our present recession. Why then, does it seem that we simply do not care if child support is not used for the direct needs of the children for whom it is being paid?

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