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Child Support: How Much is Too Much?

What is enough, what is too much?

On Jan. 1, Massachusetts adopted new child-support guidelines that will likely raise the amount paid by non-custodial parents, usually fathers.

Are the new guidelines excessive and unfair, as a lawsuit charges? Or were the old guidelines too stingy? How much child support is enough? How much is too much?

Fathers & Families, a Boston-based advocacy organization, says the payments under the new guidelines are excessive. Non-custodial parents, usually fathers, who must now make increased payments could be forced to work long hours or move to a distant community to find housing they can afford.

They will have less time to spend with their children, and may be left with a much lower standard of living than the custodial parents.

Fathers & Families immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the new guidelines.

In a press release announcing the guidelines, Massachusetts Chief Justice for Administration & Management Robert A. Mulligan said that the guidelines "address the dual goals of predictability and simplicity," and "will ensure the well-being of children across the state."

The issues raised in Massachusetts are echoed in other states, where child-support guidelines often seem, to fathers, to be unrealistically high. And to others, unrealistically low.

Dr. Ned Holstein, a physician and public-health consultant and the founder of Fathers & Families, says the guidelines will likely create a castle-and-a-shack situation-with the custodial parent living in relative comfort and the non-custodial parent struggling to afford minimally adequate housing.

"We believe that what's best for children is a two-condo solution, instead of a castle and a shack," Holstein said when I called to ask him about the lawsuit. In other words, the custodial and non-custodial parents ought to have similar standards of living. And both homes should be comfortable for the children.

Holstein's lawsuit-thrown out of federal court earlier this month, and now headed for state court-makes technical arguments about whether the adoption of the new guidelines was legal.

But one substantive point, according to the suit, is that the courts did not try to determine what it costs to raise a child in Massachusetts before adjusting the guidelines. Nor did the task force that developed the guidelines set out clear goals in making the changes.

"Their objectives are really unclear, and as a result they do not serve the best interests of children," says Holstein, who was a member of that task force and who filed a dissenting minority report.

The guidelines are particularly onerous for poor fathers, he says, who will not be able to make the payments and will then face harassment by enforcement agencies and even jail.

"Currently the guidelines tell the minimum wage employee whose income is $16,000 that you're going to pay $4,000 in child support. It can't be done." In Boston, a minimum wage employee with that obligation might be able to rent an apartment but would have nothing left over for food, Holstein says.

"Get out your TurboTax, and get out your child-support guidelines, and run the numbers. You'll see that in most cases the guidelines were a windfall, and now they're a bigger windfall," he says.

In middle-class families in which the earnings of both parents are about the same, "you create two households that are grossly different in the standard of living," Holstein says.

The federal court threw out the Fathers & Families lawsuit on legal grounds, saying it should be argued in state court.

The state court will now be asked to decide whether the guidelines are fair. But on what basis can it make that decision? Surely data on the costs of childrearing in Massachusetts should be considered. Holstein's argument that both parents should have comparable living quarters-the two-condo solution-seems reasonable.

Yet it's difficult to know whether the payments are too high or too low without, as Holstein says, running the numbers. It appears that nobody in Massachusetts has done that. And it's an open question whether the lawsuit will require the state to do so.

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