Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: 2009 Guidelines - Unintended Consequences? (Part Four of Ten)

The 2009 Guidelines may well have been higher but better, as they appeared to "get the policy right," as I discussed in Part Three of this series. However, appearing to get the policy right should not be enough to satisfy us. The proof is in the pudding. The Guidelines should be examined and tested, in various scenarios, to make sure that the actual outputs comport with our view of a fair allocation of parental resources. We should not be satisfied just because the policy is “right,” if despite that, the numbers we get as outputs do not seem fair. Indeed, family law litigants will never let us ignore the results. Outputs deemed unfair are what lead to criticism that in turn results in reforms at the next guidelines review cycle. The latest changes of the 2013 Guidelines certainly reflect much expressed dissatisfaction with child support outcomes, that is, primarily with the historically high awards, in most categories, of the 2009 Guidelines. 

The record-high awards of the 2009 Guidelines themselves are not likely to have been unintended consequences, as there was dissent on the guidelines task force, even a written dissent in fact, pointing to the realization that these guidelines would produce higher, and arguably too high, awards.  The higher awards probably reflected two things, the first of which I am fairly certain, and the second less so, as it is based more on speculation and intuition: 1) the new shared-income model, in adding together income from both parents first, before deeming a portion of that shared income as child support, and then allocating according to relative income, naturally puts upward pressure on the total child support amount ultimately awarded, in absolute value terms, as joint incomes increase, and 2) the awards, in most categories, may have been allowed to go higher for the benefit of those on the task force who have traditionally favored relatively high awards, as a concession for, or in exchange for, the big shared-income and shared-parenting paradigm shifts about to be made.

Those paradigm shifts surely would have been favored by the new voice on the task force, lead by Ned Holstein, from the organization then called Fathers and Families, and now re-named the National Parents Organization, whose raison d'etre has been advocacy of their view of equal rights for fathers to parent their children and specifically for shared parenting policies and gender equity as they see them. On the other hand, in the dissent, Ned Holstein broadly criticizes the guidelines for, among other things, not having a proper rationale.  I cannot help but think, however, that he would have welcomed generally not only the new shared parenting formula but also the new shared income paradigm itself.

My strong suspicion is that the more traditional forces insisted on the relatively high awards in some implicit exchange for the big paradigm shift that paved the way for the new shared parenting provisions and the shared income model.   The task force members - an unusually large, and most diverse group, in contrast to prior task forces, and in contrast to the latest, smaller task force for 2013 as well - had to be aware that they were creating guidelines that would lead to higher awards for most categories of payors.  That is apparent from the fact that a Minority Report issued - by  Ned Holstein, with partial concurrence from two other individuals on the task force, including economist Mark Sarro, Ph.D. (whose comments appeared in the last part of this series) - which strongly protested what it deemed the "generally excessive" nature of the awards about to be instituted. (To see the conflict yourself, compare that minority report with the Task Force Report (Majority Report).

After the 2009 Guidelines issued, Fathers and Families went beyond Ned Holstein's mere words of dissent, and went to federal court, and then state court as well, in an unsuccessful effort to try to block use of the child support guidelines on that same basis.  Later in this series of blogs, I will more specifically discuss the politics of child support, ever present though often cloaked in niceties and banal platitudes about the "best interests of the children," that all-important and vague legal principle that is a buzzword easily tossed about by advocates of all stripes.

In any case, the relatively high, and arguably too high, awards that resulted from the 2009 Guidelines, were consequences well anticipated and understood, if not fully intended, by the task force, well before implementation of the 2009 Guidelines. But there were other consequences that more likely were neither foreseen nor intended, as in fact they appeared to operate at odds with the new shared-income rationale.  What am I talking about? Well, these high awards of the 2009 Guidelines - relative both to the guidelines of other states and to previous Massachusetts guidelines - relate to the fact that the new formula, though designed as a shared income model, actually in practice often functioned more like a percentage of income model. The 2009 Guidelines, according to financial planner James McCusker, in practice made child support more of a “fixed cost (as a percentage of income) rather than a variable cost.” In particular, upon comparing results under the 2005 and 2009 guidelines, McCusker found:
In all the calculations performed, the “new” guidelines produced child support amounts that approximated 25% of payor gross income. Under the “old” guidelines that percentage went down to approximately 14% when payor and recipient income reached parity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the 2013 Guidelines, while continuing, and adding to, the new shared parenting provisions, also managed to reduce the child support awards, even by as much as 10 to 15 percent, for many categories of payors (link is to Justin Kelsey's article on the 2013 Guidelines in Family Mediation Quarterly).  Nevertheless, even after these significant reductions from the highs of the 2009 Guidelines, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines of 2013 remain quite high relative to other states, as detailed in a most recent, comprehensive comparison of the guidelines of all states in late 2013, by child support expert and economist Jane Venohr (article previously cited in Part One).  Her research as reported in that article reveals the remarkable fact that Massachusetts’ 2013 Guidelines still yield either the very highest or second highest awards, among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, in all three of the varied case scenarios she examined.
In Part Five, I will begin to discuss that next, awkward step: the 2013 Guidelines.

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