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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

The Role of the Father After Divorce
Ross A. Thompson

Child Support

Visitation and child support are related attitudinally, empirically, sometimes even legally.6,55 But their linkage is complex. Fathers who do not visit with their children are less likely to pay child support, but this may be because fathers who refuse to pay child support lack the commitment to visit regularly with offspring or because fathers who encounter obstacles to visitation feel less fidelity to child support orders. It is also true that fathers who cannot maintain child support payments are likely to otherwise disappear from their children's lives either because they wish to avoid detection or because they are denied access by the children's mother or because they cannot justify visiting offspring whom they cannot help support. Sometimes child support and visitation are linked to common influences: when mothers remarry, fathers sometimes feel excluded from their children's lives and also believe there is less need for child support payments now that a stepfather is in the picture. Or the father's own remarriage may diminish his interest in visitation and his perception of his capacity to pay child support. The geographic relocation of either parent can have similar consequences. In short, visitation and child support are complexly, but strongly, tied to each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, although unfortunately, fathers too often show inconsistent and faltering fidelity to child support orders in a manner similar to their declining visitation with offspring.56

Child support is among the most important obligations of out-of-home fathers to their children, and provision of adequate support is central to a child's economic well-being. Current estimates indicate that only about half of single mothers due child support payments receive the full amount from fathers, with half the remaining women receiving partial payments and the remainder, none at all.57 Yet the problem of child support is more complex than the simple portrayal of the "deadbeat dads" of divorce. These reports typically aggregate, for example, the child support payments of divorced fathers with those of unwed fathers, who present far more formidable problems with child support enforcement and typically provide much less support than do divorced fathers. The feminization of poverty—and the poverty of children—clearly has origins in the plight of never-married women, as well as in divorce.58 (See the article by Shiono and Quinn in this journal issue.)

In addition, one of the reasons for inadequate child support is that more than 42% of single mothers never receive a child support award. Of these, about 22% do not want such an award.57 Their reasons for this decision vary: some mothers may doubt the father's capacity or willingness to pay, others may have their own resources to draw upon, and still others may decline a child support award to avoid any obligations to the father deriving from his support.6,59 Another 19% want a support award but, for various reasons, do not pursue it, and another 14% believe that the father is financially unable to pay and, for this reason, do not request child support payments.57 In short, when children suffer economically, their suffering may be the result of their living with a never-married mother or of the absence of a support award rather than of a divorced father's noncompliance with court-ordered child support.

Nevertheless, child support payments have remained small even when women have an award. By many estimates, the total amount of child support awarded a mother is inadequate to the true costs of raising children. Moreover, even when payments are received, they are often partial or inadequate, averaging $3,322 per family in 1989 for divorced women.57 Of course, this picture is likely to change substantially with the mandatory child support guidelines and enforcement mechanisms required under the Family Support Act of 1988 discussed below.5 Fathers may also contribute to a child's economic well-being in ways that are not accounted for in child support payments. They may directly purchase clothing, gifts, and other material items for children; they may pay dental or medical bills; they may subsidize school fees, lessons, or other activities—all of which are unlikely to be included in court records or other reports. Moreover, about 44% of fathers were required to include offspring in their own medical coverage.57 In general, however, these informal sources of support tend to supplement rather than to substitute for formal child support payments.60 Fathers who support the child economically through checks to the mother are most likely to do so in other ways also.


What factors can account for whether fathers will maintain fidelity to their child support obligations? One set of explanations focuses on child support in the context of the maintenance of other parenting responsibilities toward children: fathers are more likely to provide reliable child support when they have other meaningful roles in the child's life. Judith Seltzer and her colleagues61 have argued that, just as fathers in intact homes expect to spend time with children, provide for their material needs, and exercise authority over them, so also divorced fathers define their parenting role in terms of these three responsibilities. Seltzer's data suggest that these obligations tend to correlate in fathers' postdivorce relationships with offspring: those who participate with the mother in decisions concerning children tend also to visit and maintain child support obligations; conversely, the abdication of one or two of these responsibilities tends to diminish them all. Thus a father's fidelity to child support obligations should be regarded within the context of the other commitments and responsibilities that define a father's postdivorce parenting role.53

Other research findings support this view. The association between visitation and fidelity to child support obligations has already been noted: fathers are more likely to provide regular child support payments when they enjoy regular visitation with offspring.55 A father's maintenance of child support is also affected by the geographic distance between fathers and offspring (child support is more forthcoming when the father and children live in close proximity), and the quality of the relationship between ex-spouses.60,62 Custody arrangements may also be pertinent to a father's capacity to maintain a sense of involvement with offspring. A higher proportion of fathers in joint custody maintain their child support obligations than fathers in other custody arrangements, and they are also more likely to provide children with other benefits not included in support payments.60,63 Thus if Seltzer is correct, child support is part of an overall constellation of obligations to children that noncustodial fathers either feel committed to or tend to default on. Visitation and custody arrangements that foster fathers' perception of a meaningful parenting role are likely to enhance their fidelity to child support obligations.

The father's financial capacity to provide reliable child support is another factor. More than 60% of the women due child support, but not receiving regular payments, cite the father's inability to pay as the cause.57 Although many fathers who default on child support obligations are fully capable of making regular payments, a number of studies indicate that one of the best predictors of the amount of child support provided by fathers is their income and employment status.6,7 It is not hard to see why. Lower-income fathers face multiple strikes against them: not only do they have fewer resources for satisfying their support obligations but also their child support payments typically constitute a higher proportion of their income, they have fewer ancillary resources on which to draw if they should fall behind in their support payments, and they are more aggressively prosecuted for failing in their support obligations (partly because they are already involved with social service agencies and can less easily frustrate child support enforcement efforts). Thus, these fathers are caught between limited income, few other resources, and rigorous child support enforcement.

Taken together, these factors suggest that their failure to maintain child support obligations does not confirm the popularized portrayal of "deadbeat dads" who are more interested in devoting their financial resources to personal pleasures rather than their children's needs. Instead, their support compliance can best be predicted by their more general financial circumstances and/or the kind of parenting role they can achieve in their postdivorce lives. Even when they refuse or cannot comply with their support obligations, most fathers accept their general responsibility for doing so and affirm the legitimacy of their children's postdivorce economic needs.64 As Haskins, who has studied these fathers, has commented, "I find no support in the empirical literature for either the claim that fathers believe child support to be unjustified or that they accept the validity of various reasons often cited as justifications for not paying child support. Fathers know they have an obligation to pay child support and that this obligation cannot easily be broken."64


One of the most important advances in divorce reform in the 1980s was the move to more systematic, coercive, and (not surprisingly) effective means of child support enforcement. As described more fully by Irwin Garfinkel in this issue, congressional action throughout the decade—culminating in the Family Support Act of 19885—provided strong incentives for states to establish consistent guidelines for child support awards and to strengthen enforcement efforts significantly through salary withholding, interstate cooperation in locating delinquent fathers, and other means. As a consequence, the nation is moving toward a system of child support enforcement that has long been envisioned by those concerned with the impoverishment of single mothers and their offspring: clear guidelines that reduce judicial discretion, instituted through mandatory withholding to avoid default and other enforcement processes that enlist the government—rather than the mother—as the enforcement agent.

Such a system has many strengths, including the consistency of child support orders across different local jurisdictions and enforcement procedures that help to avoid direct, and often acrimonious, confrontations between former spouses. The likelihood that women will be coerced, in divorce negotiations, to eliminate or reduce the father's child support obligation is reduced within a framework of mandatory state guidelines. Moreover, when wage withholding is supplemented by public guarantees of assured benefits to recipients of support, these procedures help to ensure the economic well-being of single mothers and their children.

There are also disadvantages to these approaches. As earlier noted, mandatory support guidelines coupled with strict enforcement procedures provide little flexibility to adapt to atypical or changing family conditions absent options for periodic review. Fathers who assume an enhanced noncustodial parenting role may be penalized, for example, by quantitative guidelines for calculating child support that assume more traditional patterns of visitation. Moreover, this system fails to address many of the important issues that complicate the determination of child support obligations. Should support awards be adjusted for inflation (especially when the cost of children's care rises with inflation, even though father's income often does not)? To what extent should support obligations be altered by events like the mother's remarriage (that may provide additional sources of financial support for the child), the father's remarriage (that may increase his other legitimate support obligations), significant changes in the employment of either parent, and other life circumstances? How much should child support obligations be affected, if at all, by the custodial parent's decision to work or not? Can mandatory guidelines help to ensure that children are the beneficiaries of child support payments? Perhaps most important, is it possible to estimate, in calculating universal support guidelines, the true costs of raising a child and how these costs are likely to change with the child's maturity and special needs?

Alternative methods of calculating child support obligations have advantages and disadvantages. The most popular proposed approach, which involves "taxing" the noncustodial parent's income by a predetermined percentage, has the advantage of straightforward simplicity and efficiency, as well as an inflation adjustment. But taxation approaches do not, taken alone, provide adequate support for the offspring of lower-income or unemployed fathers and do not take into account other resources that are (or are not) available for the child's support. By contrast, cost-sharing approaches include the custodial parent's contributions but require estimations of difficult-to-determine expenses of child rearing and have limited flexibility concerning later changes to the income of either parent. Consequently, a number of commentators have questioned whether these mathematical guidelines can really ensure equity in child support awards.65

What is most curious, this emergent system of child support enforcement fails to address the two most important causes of fathers' failure to maintain their support obligations. First, mandatory salary withholding does little to strengthen the father's involvement in other features of the child's life—such as visitation and participation in child-rearing decisions—that best predict fidelity to support obligations. In a sense, the strong enforcement of financial support responsibilities in the context of few efforts to strengthen visitation or coparenting helps to reinforce cultural portrayals of fathers as economic providers alone, and this is an undesirable outcome of divorce policy.

Second, mandatory salary withholding does little to strengthen the capacity of fathers to pay when they are underemployed or work in low-wage jobs unless it is accompanied by job training and placement efforts. Although it is arguable that, when fathers are in difficult economic straits, their children still continue to need support, it makes little sense to accrue growing arrearages in child support payments that some fathers have little hope of paying and then to prosecute them aggressively for their inability to pay. By emphasizing enforcement over enablement in such instances, the emergent system of child support may, in the end, do little to improve the living conditions of children who are economically most in need. Conversely, by combining child support enforcement with programs to promote employment for underemployed fathers, the goal of advancing children's economic best interests can be advanced.

In sum, a system of mandatory income withholding (combined, in the ideal if not in reality, with public guarantees of assured benefits) accomplishes only the worthwhile but minimal goal of child support enforcement: ensuring greater cash transfers from noncustodial to custodial parents. To be sure, this is an important first step, but it is necessarily incomplete. It does little to foster a postdivorce fathering role beyond that of economic provider and thus does little to make fathers an integral part of their children's postdivorce lives. It provides little assistance to fathers who cannot make adequate child support payments and wish to do so. It fails to address thorny policy problems concerning the scope of child support obligations, the basis for modifications of support awards, and how best to estimate the actual expenses of raising children.

Greater thought is needed on these issues in the context of the broader values they reflect. Is it fair to fathers (and children) to emphasize their economic provider role without also enhancing other parenting functions in the child's life? Given the changeability of family life during the postdivorce years, is it reasonable to expect that child support awards instituted at the time of divorce will remain valid years afterward, when patterns of child care and visitation, parental employment, and geographical relocation and remarriage will have significantly altered the children's needs and the resources upon which they can rely? Or are avenues for the periodic reworking of child support obligations most desirable as part of the continued relationship shared by former spouses after they divorce? Should the economic arrangements of child support provide significant incentives, or disincentives, for either parent to remarry and have additional children or to work? In light of these diverse considerations, current progress in this area must be regarded as incomplete.

One additional question must also be pondered: with the growing effectiveness of child support enforcement promised by mandatory income withholding, together with strengthened means for locating delinquent fathers and standard award guidelines that reduce judicial discretion, the problem of inadequate child support will increasingly become a matter of the economic impoverishment of fathers themselves.66 As earlier noted, it makes little sense to prosecute aggressively unemployed or underemployed fathers who do not have the capacity to pay (although doing so may send important signals to other fathers who are contemplating nonpayment),67 especially if the needs of children are central to this policy problem. Increasingly, commentators with various perspectives on child support issues have agreed that public responsibility to these children may be the most important future direction for public policy.66,68 Such a view is reflected in the concept of the assured benefit plan that has, unfortunately, not been adopted as eagerly as mandatory income withholding by states that have pondered divorce reform (see the article by Garfinkel in this journal issue). It is not hard to see why: assured benefits require public expenditures and a public commitment to non-welfare-based child support that many policymakers find difficult to contemplate in an era of shrinking public budgets. Nevertheless, if the interests of children are truly central to future reform of the child support system, further exploration of public obligations—accompanying public enforcement—is needed.