Understanding Why a Child Support Modification May be Appropriate

California’s food and housing insecurity deteriorated during the pandemic. The fault line in the state’s division of wealth became wider and more unstable. More than a third of Californians live under or near the poverty line. And because of antiquated child support laws, one of the most financially fragile demographics in the state are noncustodial parents.

No one knows this pinch better than 53-year-old Sacramento dad Stacy Estes. Every month, Estes watches his income split. The state of California takes $500 from his paychecks every 30 days for child support. But here is the plot twist, that garnished $500 does not get rerouted to his children from his ex-wife. It does not even go to his ex-wife.

Estes kids only receive $225. The remainder of the money is thrown toward a mountain of debt that he owes the government because he fell behind on child support payments more than two decades ago. The missed payments, along with the government-imposed interest, has buried Estes under an estimated $47,000 in child support debt. The debt has hamstrung Estes. 

Estes did not receive any of the stimulus checks Americans received during the pandemic. His children did not benefit from them either. The same goes for any income tax refunds and portions of unemployment checks. Any additional funds are intercepted by the snapping teeth of the overregulated child support monster. The debt has gotten so encompassing that he has taken to the gig economy, delivering food to make ends meet. 

The latest data from the Office of Child Support Enforcement details how California takes a disproportionate share of child support payments—almost four times the national average. This government cash-grab snatches support from the very children that this system is supposed to be supporting.

Predatory interest rates, penalties, and the threat of suspending driver’s licenses for non-payment keeps many noncustodial parents running on a hamster wheel of payment and compounded debt. That is in situations where they can land and maintain employment. 

According to the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office, noncustodial parents earn less than $15,000 a year on average. The average debt owed to their children and the government for these same parents is approximately $39,000.

An estimated 70% of this child support debt was owed to the government, not to custodial parents. Most of the uncollected debt results from parents with low incomes, parents that have moved out of state, or the debt has been outstanding so long that it is too old to collect.

Time for a Change

Until recently, the legislation controlling the rules of child support were crafted in the 1970s and 1980s. The provisions are an old-fashioned perspective on how debt and family assistance is managed. 

Advocates have pushed for the erasure of all uncollectible debt and amending the system to ensure all child support payment is received by the children. California child support administrators have even gotten on board and agree that a change is needed. And in recent years, small steps have been made to grant some relief to parents.

Typically, California collects about $2.5 billion in child support payments annually—a hefty sum but proportionate to the state’s population. In 2020, $2.7 million was collected. Fortunately, the king’s share, about $2 billion, made it to the custodial parents. The state raked in more than $430 million for state coffers and federal repayments.

The implemented changes bring the government’s take down to 40%, and a debt reduction program allows noncustodial parents to wipe away their full debt by paying a compromise lump sum.

The amounts of public assistance for families also increased to double their previous amounts for child support. A family with one child on public assistance now receives $100 a month (previously $50), and a family with two or more children now receives $200 a month.

But the predatory practice of charging 10% interest on public child support debt persists. Even in a state running a surplus of more than $100 billion, the millions lost by relieving the burden of crushing debt is a bridge too far in putting progressive ideas in front of making more profit off the poor.   

Child Support Modification

Stacy Estes can serve as an example that sometimes a child support order needs to be modified. After a divorce and an initial child support order, circumstances can change in one or both parents’ lives, and they will need to reach a new agreement concerning child support payments.

A judge will need to approve this new agreement. If the initial order is below state guidelines, a change to the amount can be changed any time. If both spouses come to an impasse and cannot agree and the initial amount of support is at the state’s guidelines, a court hearing can be requested to find a new amount. 

To qualify for a child support modification, parents must present reasonable changes in their circumstances. To put it simply, something in a parent’s life has changed and affects the current amount of child support. 

The reasons for this change might include:  

  • A change in income
  • A reduction in work hours
  • A new or changed job
  • A loss of their job
  • A medical emergency
  • An incarceration
  • A deployment with active military service
  • A change in the time spent with each parent
  • A change in the child’s needs or additional costs to care for the child
  • Another child from a new relationship

A child support modification can be either temporary or permanent: 

  • Temporary modifications can occur because of a medical emergency. A parent can have medical issues which prohibits them from paying child support. If a child needs prolonged medical care, child support may need to be temporarily increased to help cover medical costs. 
  • Permanent modifications can happen because of any of the circumstances listed above. It can occur because of increased cost of living. A disability with either parent can also cause a long-term modification. 

Both modifications will continue until the change in child support is no longer needed, or until additional modifications are needed due to life’s latest changes or shifting circumstances.

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