The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments

The Law and Economics of Child Support Payments

Edited by William S. Comanor

To understand the issues involved, leading lawyers and economists examine various facets of the child support system from a law and economics perspective. They consider the incentives faced by both custodial and non-custodial parents, and search for policy actions that are more incentive-compatible for all participants. The assumptions underlying current child support guidelines are discussed, as are the ways in which child support payments affect family structure, teenage delinquency and income disparities between parents.

Chapter 6: Hopelessly defective: an examination of the assumptions underlying current child support guidelines

Robert A. McNeely and Cynthia A. McNeely

Subjects: politics and public policy, public policy


Robert A. McNeely and Cynthia A. McNeely No one meant for it to turn out this way. When the US Congress in 1984 required states to create child support guidelines, the goals were reasonably laudable: to increase the adequacy, consistency and predictability of child support awards that had previously developed into a patchwork of inconsistent awards under the common law; to make administration of child support cases easier; and to increase compliance through ‘perceived fairness’ of these awards.1 Nineteen years later, the system is a mess: a massive child support industrial complex has developed,2 countless numbers of parents – almost exclusively fathers – have been jailed for non-payment, and there is no evidence that outcomes for children have improved. A 1996 survey of Florida judges, hearing officers and special masters that heard child support cases found that one half of those charged with ordering guideline child support thought the guidelines were unfair.3 Of that half, 79 per cent felt the guidelines treated non-custodial parents unfairly.4 How did this happen? This chapter seeks to answer that question by examining the principles and assumptions that guided the creation of child support guidelines. Some principles were expressly stated when the guidelines were created; these will be examined for their success or failure. Others, however, became apparent only after the guidelines were implemented. Ultimately, however, the conclusion is inescapable: the child support guidelines suffer from irreparably weak foundations. If the constant litigation, legislation and incarceration related to child support is to ever have...

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