The Dollars and Sense of Child Support Payments

Child Support Payments:  Dollars? Yes.  Sense? Maybe not.

A troublesome and mystifying area of the law for many clients concerns the determination of child support payments.  Tennessee follows the “income shares” method, which entails a mathematical calculation based on each parent’s gross income and the number of days the child spends per year with each of them.  A long set of confusing and complicated guidelines is available for litigants and judges to attempt to decipher.  The results can be hard to justify.

Let’s look at some scenarios.

Scenario 1:  Jimmy and Jenny are not married, but they have a son, Joey.  Joey lives with Jenny 285 days a year, and spends 80 days with his dad.  Jimmy is a college graduate earning $2500 a month.  Jenny is a high school graduate earning $1200 a month.  While Jenny is working, Joey is at day care, which costs $350 a month, so a work-related child care expense is factored into the calculation.  The result is that Joey pays Jenny $477.36 a month as child support.  So far, so good.

But, consider this:  Jenny and Joey live at her parents’ house where they have free housing, food, heat, electricity, etc. And, Jenny’s parents pay for Joey’s daycare.  Although child support is intended to ensure that the child’s basic life necessities are met, the law does not require the recipient spouse to account to the payer spouse for how the money is spent.  Jenny uses most of Jimmy’s child support payments to fund her own clothing purchases and entertainment for herself.  Can Jimmy do anything about this?  No.

Scenario 2:  Mary and David are getting divorced. They have a daughter, Janie.  (Same days per parent as above.) David earns $2500 a month.  Mary, who holds two master’s degrees and has earned as much as $75,000 a year in the past, chooses to be a stay at home mom, so she earns nothing.  Can David insist that Mary go to work?  No. The law favors stay-at-home moms, so Mary gets to make that choice.  David’s child support payment is $510.00 a month.  Mary has an investment account worth $150,000, which is her separate property acquired prior to the marriage, so David has no claim to it.  David has no assets, and has $25,000 in credit card debt accumulated during the marriage while trying to make ends meet.  Does any of that matter?  No.

Scenario 3:  Bill and Susan have never married, but they have a daughter, Carol. (Same days per parent as above.)  Bill makes $2500 a month.  Susan, a high school dropout with no family to help her out, works part time, making $640 a month.  A neighbor watches Carol for free when Susan is working. Bill’s child support obligation is $492.80. Susan spends every penny of that on Carol, and is struggling to keep up with the bills.  In addition to his income, Bill has a $300,000 stock portfolio from an inheritance, but that has no bearing on his child support obligation. Fair?

As you can see, the range of difference in child support payments in these three scenarios is very scenario is, in its own way, fundamentally unjust.  Unfortunately, child support is an area of the law in which justice is often absent.