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Simplistically speaking, there are two major areas of contention in family law: money and children. These areas combine to produce a process we know as child support.
Each state has their own set of child support laws, though often they can be similar and reflect federal child support statutes, such as Title 18 for enforcement and Title 28 for full faith and credit of support orders. The basic theory is the same: the noncustodial parent pays the custodial parent.
In 2020, U.S. Census Bureau data reported that 82 percent of single parent households were headed by mothers only. Women are more frequently the custodial parent, making them the majority of candidates to receive child support. In contrast, the number of men that are custodial parents has only increased 4 percent in 24 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Therefore, the collection and enforcement of child support can morph into an unexpected burden for single mothers. Further research has shown that the burden for these mothers grows relative to the disparity in income between these women.
Women who have primary custody of their children and who also maintain a financially stable career are often dissuaded from collecting or enforcing child support orders and payments. This misguided theory suggests that if a woman has attained a certain level of professional and financial status, she does not need financial contribution from the other parent. Too often women who are financially independent from the noncustodial parent, yet statutorily entitled to financial support for their children, are discouraged and ultimately do not pursue or receive support. This archaic mind set puts additional pressure on working mothers. One parent’s success does not alleviate the responsibility of the noncustodial parent. It also should not diminish the benefit of additional income for their children. The point remains, it is the children who are entitled to benefit from the income of both parents.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are working mothers who have primary custody of their children but are of more modest financial means. Their struggle is not so much in deciding to obtain a support order, but more likely in the collection or enforcement of a child support order. These women, who comprise nearly half of working mothers, rely on child support to pay the week’s grocery bill, utility bill, or to make up a shortfall on housing costs.
If the parties do not participate in having their order enforced by a state-backed collection unit, the collection of support can become even more challenging. Only 44 percent of child support orders are collected in full. For the staggering amount of other cases, parents are faced with continuing conflict, both in and out of court. Often, parents who do not use the collection unit take on the responsibility of tracking, calculating, and pursuing their own support collection and enforcement. This requires the parent receiving support to engage in additional record keeping and potentially contentious communications with the other parent. When they cannot collect, arrearages add up, but so do the bills, leaving them alone to bear the burden of financially supporting their children while still being the primary caretaker. It must be said that you can witness substantial drive and commitment from these mothers to take on these challenges, for no other reason than to provide to the best of their ability for their children. They are driven by their faith in, and love of, their children.
However, faith and love can only drive some so far when there is no foundation of steady and livable income. At some point, payments stop, arrearages reach unattainable amounts, and women lose hope of ever collecting much needed funds to support their children. The National Women’s Law Center reported that in 2019, one in three families headed by unmarried mothers lived in poverty in 2019. It is not surprising that there are a striking number of single-mother homes that live in poverty considering that the vast amount of mothers are not collecting full child support, or any support at all. This presents a cyclical socio-economic crisis.
Being the custodial parent often prevents these women from ever becoming financially independent. Indeed, a 2019 Pew Research survey found that 50 percent of employed mothers said they struggled to advance their career while balancing parental duties.
It is not just basic child support that is at issue. Most states provide for an add-on of childcare expenses contributed to by both parties. Not only are a significant amount of women not receiving full child support, they also are not receiving reimbursement for childcare which is necessary for them to be employed themselves.
All of these challenges were amplified during the pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, childcare demands forced over 32 percent of mothers out of the workforce. We now see an increase in family court filings for violations and modifications of child support. Childcare options have dwindled as well, and those that remain saw an increase in cost. In a 2020 study, the Center for American Progress found that the cost of childcare since COVID has increased on average about 47 percent. During the pandemic, the share of unpartnered mothers who are working in the U.S. dropped to 67.4 percent in September 2020 compared to 76.1 percent in September 2019. A likely contributing factor was the increase in childcare costs, together with the inability of mothers to collect full child support.
Across all income levels, single mothers are bearing the burden of the prevalent lack of consistent financial contribution from noncustodial parents. Supporting, and encouraging, efficient government backed collection bureaus, is one step in the right direction. However, it may be some time until we see a stronger economic recovery across the country that can provide the income infusion that these families need. Only time will tell.
Leslie Silva is a partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC in Albany, New York.