Thirty years ago, as a powerful Democratic leader of the Florida House, I was asked by several Republican women in the Legislature to introduce legislation that would mitigate a social issue that was hurting women across the state.
At the time, a large number of women faced economic hardship because their former husbands were not paying child support. Worse, there was no enforcement mechanism in place to make them pay. With bipartisan support we passed legislation that garnished the wages of defaulting fathers and created a depository to protect those funds for children.
With this legislation, Florida had tried to create a judicial framework that required an equitable economic commitment from divorcing parents, as well as shared custody when appropriate.
Over the years, unfortunately, the system has become rife with unintended consequences that are unfair and not in the best interests of the children of divorce or their parents. Our intended fixes instead have become a contributing factor to the trauma and increasing mental-health issues children face while experiencing the trauma of divorce.
How did this happen?
Simply put, child-support payments, a system designed to provide economic security for the child, have become weaponized by a cohort of family lawyers and bitter parents.
At the time of divorce, child support payments are determined on a formulaic basis that assesses the ability of each parent to contribute to their child’s economic stability. Overnight time that a child spends with each parent is a part of the formula. Courts like to see children spend time with each parent equally (although child psychologists now are beginning to believe that the movement back and forth between parents adds inordinate stress on a child).
But reliance on the formula has become a systemic problem because it is rigidly driven by the parents’ earnings and rather than the actual needs of the children or the parents’ real assets. The underlying premise is that it is in the best interests of the child to live in relatively equal circumstances at each parent’s home. If one parent’s income goes up more than 5 percent after the divorce, the other parent can seek modification of child-support payments.
This is where real mischief comes in: There is no requirement that the parent will spend the increased payments directly on the child. Here is what happens on the ground, in real time. An angry ex-spouse sees their former spouse making more money and, egged on by lawyers, goes to court to seek additional remediation. The law gives the attorney the ability to access all of the former spouse’s financial records — credit-card statements, tax returns, bank records, etc.
Imagine the additional stress on parents who can be hauled into court every time their earnings increase by 5 percent until the children turn 18. The mere threat of a suit might force the ex-spouse to pay more money because it is cheaper than a lawsuit. And you do not have to prove you are using the additional child support payments on direct expenditures for the child. This is nothing less than legalized extortion that adds to a poisonous atmosphere surrounding the children.
I became aware of this issue when a female colleague of mine was ordered to pay almost an additional $2,000 a month to her former spouse merely because she is more successful. And that’s not the whole story. The suing parent earns more than six figures, has inherited money since the divorce settlement, has remarried and has the children for less time than the mother, incurring fewer childcare expenses.
Thirty years ago, I fought for an enforceable child support system because I did not want to see women driven into poverty by irresponsible men. It is a bitter irony that the system can be used by men and women to plunder these hard-won gains in a way that provides no enforceable benefit to the children.
This is one of many issues surrounding family law that the Legislature must address.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.