Increased Discussion About Child Support and Low-Income Noncustodial Parents:
What Are Proposed Solutions?
The problems facing low-income child support obligors seem complex. Georgia is required by federal regulations to update child support guidelines to address self-support needs of noncustodial parents. Fortunately, some states have gotten a jump on many—but not all–of these issues and can offer some guidance on potential solutions for the legislature to enact. What are some of the solutions being proposed by The Georgia Affordable Child Support Project?
Addressing the Issue of Self Support for Noncustodial Parents and Related Issues
Saving detail to follow, the key solutions are:
Here are moderately detailed highlights of proposed solutions.
Georgia’s child cost schedule is one of the worst in the country for low income noncustodial parents. It immediately pushes low income obligors below poverty after subtracting the court-ordered award from income.
The cost table should look more like the one used in North Carolina which was updated recently and has costs starting to be positive only after income approaches self-support levels. And then costs only rise gradually so as to not be burdensome as income slowly increases above the poverty level.
Let’s look at one child costs. Note the NC’s child costs are a minimum $50 per month until income reaches $1,200 per month. The goal for self support is to leave income about $1,200 per month (about the poverty level) after subtracting the child support award. In contrast, GA immediately has its tables lowest cost of $197 per month (which is high to income). The GA official table shows income starting at $800 per month but the $197 child cost applies to lower incomes also—which become nonsensical in its burden on the noncustodial parent at below $800 levels of income.
So, NC has a somewhat reasonable minimum award of $50 until income reaches self support. Meanwhile, GA has an unbelievably high starting cost of $197 per month. Georgia’s child costs remain very burdensome (notably higher than NC’s costs which track below the poverty level, leaving enough income for self support. Georgia needs to revise its cost schedule so that after the child support award, there still is income to meet self-support needs.
Legislation should limit the final child support award to available income of the noncustodial that is income above poverty level. The final award would be basic costs, plus day care, plus health insurance premiums and any deviations.
Imputation of income is a key reason for noncustodial parents falling behind in child support. Not only is the cost table too high, but often the award is based on higher income that the NCP does not have.
Federal regulations have recognized this problem and now require judges to follow specific steps to be able to impute income. The idea is that if the court actually examines factors such as employment and earnings history, job skills, educational attainment, literacy, age, health, criminal record and other employment barriers, and record of seeking work, as well as the local job market, the availability of employers willing to hire the noncustodial parent, and prevailing earnings level in the local community. But judges often ignore these required procedures and make a finding of higher imputed income just out of habit and regardless of actual circumstances of the noncustodial parent and the local economy.
Federal Regulations and GA Code
To impute income:
1) Did the court go through a detailed examination of the noncustodial parent’s personal works history, job skills, and job impediments to see if higher imputed income is justified,
2) Did the court examine the local job market to determine if the earnings potential currently exists for the noncustodial parent?
But, did the judge actually follow these procedures or just make income up? Only a required written finding of how procedure was followed will guarantee imputed income only when appropriate and not just made up.
How does the judge get by with not complying with federal regulations and Georgia law on following procedure to see if imputing income is appropriate? Georgia appellate courts have repeatedly stated that when the court imputes income, written findings are not required because Georgia law does not require written findings. But written findings would make it harder for judges to ignore the requirement to examine in detail the employment and earnings prospects of a noncustodial parent. This is a vastly important distinction in contrast to merely “making up” income out of simple habit. To fix this problem of excessive use of imputed income, the legislature should make it mandatory for written findings of how procedure was followed for evaluating prospects for earnings—both the personal facts (i.e., education, job history, criminal record) and the status of the local job market before income can be imputed. Reduction in the used of imputed income when not justified will lead to fewer cases of child support arrearages.
Here’s an example of Georgia appellate opinion that written findings currently are not required when imputing income.
Neal v. Hibbard, 770 S.E.2d 600, 296 Ga. 882 (2015):
[H]e [appellant and noncustodial parent] also notes that the court did not make written findings regarding the imputation of income. However, “OCGA § 19-6-15(f)(4)(D) does not require a trial court to make written findings as to why it decided to impute income to a spouse.”
14-09-09.38. Child support obligation of incarcerated parents.
Federal regulations allow states to use operation of law as a method to comply with new requirements for updating child support orders for incarcerated parents.
Such an approach would be simpler than a full-blown modification—which involves extensive procedure. North Dakota’s code could be enacted in Georgia and even reasonably expanded to include not just a sentence of 180 days or longer but actual time served if the original sentence was less than 180 days. Or the threshold could be changed to perhaps 120 days. But use of sentence length allows the child support agency re-establish obligations after the parent is released, even if the actual period of incarceration is shorter than 180 days.
The impact of unaffordable child support awards for low-income noncustodial parents is far more pervasive and more negative than most imagine. Obligors’ chances for a better life ahead dwindle sharply. Children and custodial parents get less actual child support than if the order were affordable. Children lose much contact with their father. Communities suffer. And taxpayers have higher burdens from incarceration, higher crime, and increased spending on “fix it” social services.
But the solutions exist and largely have been tested in other states. Mostly, all that needs to be done is to tweak other states’ code and have the willingness to enact.
 It has been suggested in the Georgia legal community that even if a self-support section were added to the child cost tables, that self-support is still an issue because the cost tables themselves are too high. Indeed, Georgia is the only state combined two different types of cost studies for all of its cost table. The higher of the two tables has been strongly discredited in the economics community. As a practical matter, the legislature could at least replace the one child portion of the cost table. A study recently was presented to the Georgia Commission on Child Support showed notably lower one child costs than the current but outdated cost table. Not already doing so, indicates that little attention was paid to the self-support issue even though the related federal regulation had already been implemented.