Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: Skewed Results with a Literal "Average" (Part Seven of Ten)

As I began to explore in Part Six, the 2013 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines formula for the intermediate, shared parenting category, of 33-50 percent of parenting time, is quite poorly conceived and drafted, in that it does not specify the use of a negative number in computing the "average" where it is an average of transfers by different parents one to the other.  Literally interpreted, the formula works well, and as designed, in all cases in which the parent with less parenting time also has a higher income.

Where it doesn't work, and the results skew in the wrong direction, in a manner contrary to the rationale of the guidelines, is in the case where the parent with less parenting time also has a lower income. This was an oversight by the guidelines committee, who probably failed even to consider that situation, and most certainly failed to test the formula for that situation.  Such an oversight is unfortunate, as the lesser-time parent who most needs the "break" or "credit" for extra time is the parent who makes less income than the primary custodial parent.  But under a literal interpretation of the guidelines (and particularly the term "average"), the literal results obtained for such a parent are absurd as the effect could be to punish rather than reward the extra time.

In many cases, results under the literal average approach would be laughably ridiculous. Take this example: A couple with one child mediate their divorce, and decide Mother will have 40 percent of the parenting time and Father 60 percent. The available weekly income, after deductions, is $4500 for Father and $200 for Mother. Mother would pay $22/week to Father if he had sole custody (one third/two thirds split), Father would pay Mother $730/week if she had sole custody, and Father would pay Mother $708/week if they had equal time. With their actual 40/60 split, the literal average calculation would be $365. If the parent with less time must pay, that would mean Mother would need to pay Father $365 per week, nearly double her available income of $200! If instead we used my proposed negative sign (which should have been explicitly included in the formula) to compute the average and allowed the parent with more time to pay, we would get a much more reasonable payment from Father to Mother of $343, the perfect compromise between putative transfers in opposite directions.

It is not only in such extreme examples, but in all cases involving a parent with both less parenting time and less income, that use of the second cross-calculation with a literal average will skew in the wrong direction, as will be demonstrated in charts in the next blog in this series. Under a literal interpretation of average and a requirement that the parent with less time always pays, parents with both less time and less income would actually have a disincentive to gain more than 33 but less than 50 percent of the parenting time, as they could pay more that way, sometimes way more. In fact, they would do well to have exactly 33 percent, as they could pay more both if their time were one percent less (through upward deviation) and if it were one percent more!

One solution to this problem is to interpret the guidelines to allow the person with less time and income to receive child support from the richer, primary custodial parent, as would automatically occur if we used the negative sign as I propose to compute the average of putative transfers from different payors to each other. Guidelines calculations flow logically from the rationale of the shared-income model. The method is to add together the parents’ available incomes, then deem a portion as shared support, and finally allocate from one parent to the other relative to income. That basic approach suggests such an outcome is possible, fair and logical; furthermore, it comports with the preamble’s goal that “to the extent either parent enjoys a higher standard of living” the child should be “entitled to enjoy that higher standard.”

A second solution would be instead to deviate from, and effectively ignore, all calculations where payments from different payors are to be averaged. Effectively ignoring the literal average, perhaps by deviating in all these cases using the explicit disproportionality provision, might be the more reasonable course, as the real problem is that the guidelines failed to account for this particular situation.  There were economists who advised the guidelines committee, but they appeared to have done so only before the guidelines committee deliberated and wrote the new guidelines (this time, the committee was a small group of a few judges and lawyers who work in the system, and there were no economists or accountants serving directly on the committee, as there had been for the previous guidelines committee that created the 2009 Guidelines), and so this glaring mistake was not caught before the guidelines were completed and became final and effective.

However we interpret the new provisions, problematic policy implications will persist. There may be unwelcome incentives to manipulate the dependent variables of child support and parenting time to influence the other, especially while these new provisions remain murky. Perverse incentives and consequences may always exist to some degree in any child support scheme. Our goal should then be to give direction that is as clear, predictable and fair as possible, to guide parents to a result in their children’s best interests.   This unfortunate provision for the "average" is just one of a number of provisions in the 2013 Guidelines - as discussed in the last several blogs in this series - whose lack of clarity and predictability may cause more problems than they solve.

 In Part Eight, I will further analyze and explore effects of the 2013 Guidelines through the use of charts.

For information about Massachusetts divorce and family law, see the divorce and family law page of my law firm website.