As with any institution that governs behaviors and responsibilities, child support laws were created and designed to make sure that a parent fulfills their obligations to their biological child, and to assure that the child would not be left without adequate resources. But as we all know, societies become increasingly complicated over time – laws change, responsibilities change.
And child support laws, once meant to make taking care of a child a simpler, streamlined process, has now become a complex and somewhat arcane system of tracking payments, rules stacked on top of rules, and governing bodies like child support court, departments of health and human services, legal counsels, etc. It’s no wonder that even parents who wish to follow all the rules, pay on time, and do the right thing end up getting in trouble with the law.
Divorce in previous centuries, and even in the recent past, wasn’t as common a legal practice. For example, no-fault divorces were first made legal in California in 1969 with the Family Law Act. Prior to its being effective in 1970, most divorce cases needed substantive legal grounds beyond irreconcilable differences. Even now, the final state to allow no-fault divorce was New York in 2010.
By expanding the kinds of divorces legally available, states also had to expand the laws around child support. In typical at-fault divorce cases, child support typically was easier to manage. But in no-fault cases, who and how and where custody was awarded became much more complicated. Again in California, this led to a balance between paying for support and spending time with the child. Fathers had to be granted more paternity and visitation rights – but this complicated the amount of money owed in child support.
It may come as a shock to some of you, but child support laws have existed in the United States even before we were a recognized country. But once a nation, civil courts handled many of the child support cases to ensure that poor or destitute mothers had a means of caring for their children outside of fathers.
The growth and complexity, however, came after World War II, with many men returning from war and women finding increasing independence. The birth of the feminist movement in the 70s also led to landmark legislations in 1974-76 where the state, to decrease its financial burden, allocated funds for each state to enforce child support obligations under a CSES, or a Child Support Enforcement System. Then in 1984, states could begin garnishing wages as a means of gathering financial obligations from delinquent parents.
So, are all these child support laws necessary? It’s just a sad truth that these laws can make it harder to be a good parent and pay child support on time. Unfair penalties, confusing timelines, and endless paperwork can make even the most honest of parents be in violation of a law or rule they weren’t aware of. Then there are cases, such as a recent one in Illinois where an employer garnished wages but failed to properly forward the payments. And there are others still where states get false documentation and proceed to press charges on erroneous information. Given that there are hundreds of state and federal regulations, it’s no wonder good honest parents are frustrated with the child support system.
The truth is, for a vast majority of parents, these laws are unnecessary. But the unfortunate reality is that many of these laws exist because there are parents out there who do not fulfill their legal obligation to support their child. Laws are created to solve problems that continue to exist within the system. Some parents simply wish to forgo or choose not to make payments, and states and federal agencies have no choice but to make the regulations more complex, and the tracking more sophisticated, to ensure that children are being taken care of.
So do we need these laws? Ultimately, we don’t need them if we are following the laws in place and being responsible adults and taking care of our children. If we do that, then we won’t have governments regulating the business of parenting, and we will be able to do it ourselves.