While perhaps not immediately obvious, child support is interwoven with parenting and custody outcomes as well as potentially many separation-related issues. To some extent, as married women’s labor force participation and custody rules have changed nationally over the past decades, child support has altered as well. Virginia’s changing policies closely track the national picture.
In the United States, responsibility for providing support for minor children is tied to biology rather than parenting. Thus, even parents of children who have been temporarily removed from their parents’ care due to neglect or abuse remain obligated to the state for their support. Custody, rather than paternity, has historically been a social fact: thus the unwed father must “grasp the opportunity” of parenthood before he can object to placement (Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 245 (1983)), and the biological father who is uninvolved may be unable to veto a stepparent adoption (Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 746 (1978); Ward v. Faw, 253 S.E.2d 658 (Va. 1979)).
Even when custody is not an issue, parents are required by the state to take financial responsibility for their children. For example, there has been a sharp increase in the number of support actions by states recouping TANF (welfare) payments from non-custodial parents. In most cases, the custodial parent has not sought formal custody awards, though they may be making “in kind” contributions to their families’ well-being.
When part of a divorce, child support is a continuation of a duty to the children, who are not themselves parties to the proceedings and who are not intended to break with their parents at divorce. Unlike spousal support, it historically has been designed to ensure that children receive from their parents what they would have had the adult relationship remained intact (Conway v. Conway, 395 S.E.2d 464 (Va. App. 1990)). Of course this cannot be true for unwed parents who have never lived together but who nonetheless owe duties of support to their children. Some laws and cases recognize that children may be “owed” extra, such as help with college tuition, to make up for the hardship of parental breakup (In re Marriage of Crocker, 971 P.2d 469 (Ore. 1998)). Since these children are almost always above the age of majority, parents who wish to provide for college usually do so by agreement, and courts will honor these provisions, as in the Goldin v. Goldin case (34 Va. App. 95, 538 S.E.2d 326 (2000)).
Because of concerns that child support could leave custodial parents (largely mothers) destitute, and that judges were arbitrary and capricious in their awards of child support and because state child support measures often proved inadequate, the federal government and uniform laws concerning child support have been increasingly tightening these measures. In the mid-1980s, the Federal government started requiring state-level child support guidelines as a condition for receiving Social Security block funding (42 U.S.C. § 667). Child support enforcement measures including state incentives created new federal and state agencies dedicated to recouping monies owed to governments (for public assistance) or custodial parents (as example, Virginia Department of Social Services Office of Child Support Enforcement). While things have improved marginally, in May 2014, 422,000 of Virginia’s children are owed more than $2.6 billion in unpaid child support.
While shared parenting (in Virginia, called shared custody) was a feature in some states as early as the 1980s, laws favoring joint custody are proliferating, and shared parenting is becoming more common, especially among wealthier, educated, divorcing couples. These are also the families in which some types of child support guidelines disadvantage wealthier fathers in cases where the mother is not employed full time. Shared parenting also influences the amount of child support collected from fathers, who still make up the bulk of “noncustodial” parents.
As described above, child support and child custody are deeply intertwined. As laws and society move toward shared/equal parenting as the norm, this can have an immediate and ongoing effect on support obligations.
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New Jersey Supreme Court, 2014. New Jersey Child Support Guidelines Worksheet, available here.
Virginia Supreme Court, 2014. Virginia Child Support Guidelines Worksheet, available here.