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Do our current child support guidelines lead to fair results?

Two professors from Arizona State University recently released a study of people's sense of fairness about child support determinations in the U.S. and England. The professors, who teach law and psychology, were interested in understanding the public's views on child support, custody and alimony as currently determined, and whether the legal rules ought to be changed.

The question was surprisingly hard to answer, which is unusual considering that public opinion surveys are done all the time. The two professors had noted the distinct lack of information, however, and decided it was critical for policymakers to have a clearer grasp of what's at stake. After all, there's no lobbying group for parents who are subject to family court orders.

Instead of sending out a survey with a set of abstract questions, the researchers thought they would get more authentic responses by performing personal interviews with a relatively representative group. So, after randomly selecting people from jury pools, the researchers asked respondents to weigh in on what would be the fairest result in a series of hypothetical scenarios.

Americans tended to prefer different results than child support guidelines typically give

In the U.S., each state has its own rules on how the amount of child support should be determined. Pennsylvania's child support guidelines, for example, base the amount on both parents' incomes in what is called the "income shares model." By far, most U.S. states use this model, but 12 states and the District of Columbia use different child support models.

When the survey respondents listed their preferred outcome, however, they tended to base their decisions primarily on the custodial parent's income. They also took into account some factors most state child support guidelines do not: the relative incomes of the parents and additional resources from stepparents.

Generally, the respondents tended to:

  • Increase the child support award when the custodial parent earned less than the paying parent and vice-versa.
  • Willingly adjust a child support order when the noncustodial parent's income changed.
  • Keep the overall percentage of income paid toward child support the same even when the amount itself needed to be raised or lowered.

While the comparative earnings of the parents and the income-percentage-basis might result in outcomes not supported by most state guidelines, it's important to realize that you can and should ask the court to reevaluate your child support whenever you experience a significant change in your circumstances.

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