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Judge: ‘Many try to pay past-due child support but have lost jobs or earn so little it’s impossible’

February 2nd, 2009 by Glenn Sacks, MA for Fathers & Families

A couple weeks ago I posted that Albany Times-Union columnist Dan Higgins (pictured) was doing an investigative piece about child support, writing Can’t collect child support? I may want to interview you. Since the noncustodial parent perspective is important to this issue, and since Higgins did display a little willingness to consider this side of the story, I suggested you write him.

The story is now out, and while it does slant towards custodial parents’ problems, as Higgins originally intended, he does include the other side, too. Some of the more positive sections include:

Debts pile up for a variety of reasons, including classic deadbeats who refuse to pay their share, non-custodial parents who are poor or underemployed themselves, or parents who are in prison. But families not receiving the support due them are a major contributor to poverty and other social problems, advocates for children and families said…

It’s easy to rack up a large child support debt, but not easy to pay it off while staying current, said Robert Meyer, a child support magistrate in the Family Court systems of Albany and Rensselaer counties.

Every day, Meyer writes child support orders using a state formula, as well as some of his own discretion, to decide what parents who do not have full custody of their children will pay to the custodial parent. Generally, parents who pay child support must pay 17 percent of their net income for one child and progressively larger amounts for additional children up to 35 percent. There are 10 other variables a magistrate must consider, including health care and education costs, and whether paying the required amount would leave the non-custodial parent below the poverty line.

He said he sees many instances of parents who are trying to pay past-due child support but have either lost their jobs or earn so little to begin with it’s nearly impossible to catch up.

One father in Meyer’s court room recently was told he must start paying immediately on a debt of $20,000. But the father wasn’t working and his only income is disability payments. The amount was set at $15 per month, to stay current with what he owed plus an additional $5 a month toward his arrears. That means he won’t be paid up for over 300 years.

Meyer said it’s frustrating when it’s obvious the parent who has fallen behind will never be fully paid up.

[Scott Cade, the director of the state's child support enforcement program,] said the state system needs to be more realistic when it comes to large arrears in cases when a debtor parent is jailed or has serious health complications, or even in cases of unemployment. When people fall seriously behind, he said, there seems to be less of an effort made to stay current. The ODTA is trying to get a legislative package introduced in the Legislature this year that would give judges greater flexibility to modify support orders, with the goal being to come up with more realistic terms, and, they argue, a more likely scenario under which a parent will pay anything at all.

To write Higgins a letter, click here. To write a Letter to the Editor of the Albany Times Union, click here.

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