Irrational Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines

Massachusetts has long had some of the most excessive child support guidelines in the nation: for just one child, the father is ordered to pay close to 25% of his gross income, or more than 35% of his after-tax income, to the mother. This amount of money grossly exceeds the cost of raising a child, and there’s no obligation even to spend the money on the child, rather than the mother. As a result, the father often has a disposable income that is just a fraction of the income of the mother’s household.

But excessive as the guidelines are, the state courts are now promulgating a child-support schedule that radically increases the rates by 60 percent for middle-class households where the father and mother make similar amounts (like $40,000 each or $60,000 each). The guidelines are not rationally-related to the costs of rearing children.

The new guidelines are harmful to children, not just their fathers. Children spend up to a third of their time in their fathers’ care, yet Massachusetts’ child support guidelines financially destroy many divorced fathers, leaving them chronically broke and thus unable to provide their children a nice home to live in during visitation. The state child support guidelines give fathers little if any reduction in child support payments for the time and money they spend caring for their children during extensive visitation, even though such care reduces the child-care costs of the recipient mother and increases the father’s expenses.

This financial havoc can’t be justified by claiming that divorced fathers had it coming: most divorces in this country are no-fault divorces initiated by wives, rather than husbands (wives initiate about two-thirds of all divorces, according to data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics, and the many studies reviewed by Sanford Braver of Arizona State University in his 1998 book Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths).

It is also frankly sexist: unlike nearby states, like Maine and Connecticut, where fathers have some realistic chance of getting primary or shared custody, in Massachusetts, trial judges tend to award primary custody to mothers over similarly-qualified fathers, even when the fathers are fit parents who have been very actively involved in the lives of their children. Everyone knows that these guidelines are intended to milk fathers to benefit their ex-wives (and their divorce lawyers). Prominent divorce lawyers like Richard Crouch have noted that in practice, child-support and spousal support laws are often applied in a sexist fashion.

As excessive as the child-support guidelines are, alimony is often awarded on top of it. Alimony is awarded in Massachusetts even to wives who have committed adultery or engaged in domestic violence. (Most states award alimony without regard to fault; a minority preclude alimony based on fault, such as adultery; and some states that generally ignore fault still forbid spouses who have perpetrated domestic violence to collect alimony. A few states, like California, even award alimony to low-income husbands, but in most states, courts are, in practice, much more willing to award alimony to wives (even those who are quite capable of supporting themselves) than to low-income husbands, even if the husband did something praiseworthy like working to pay his wife’s college bills).

I should note in closing that I am not divorced, have no child support obligations, and no personal or family history of entanglement with the family courts or divorce courts. My only connection to Massachusetts is spending three years earning a degree at Harvard Law School, and reading dozens of Massachusetts family-court cases. (Years ago, I also read the child support guidelines of virtually every state).