Child Support and the Custodial Mother's Move or Remarriage
Presented at the 2014 Conference on Empirical Legal Studies held at Berkeley.
42 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2014 Last revised: 14 May 2015
Date Written: July 22, 2014
When a custodial mother marries a new partner, the income of the custodial household rises. The stepfather may earn much more than the father, or much less. He may or may not assume the social role of father, but his day to day contact and interaction with the child will often be more than the father’s. If the mother and stepfather move together with the child to a location distant from the father, he may be more likely to replace him in the child’s life. Whatever a stepfather’s legal obligations of support, economic realities ensure that his income will have an impact on the child’s financial well-being, and possibly a major impact. Yet the usual understanding is the law excludes the income of the mother’s new husband from consideration in setting the father’s child support obligation. Nor does it consider the impact of the remarriage, or any move, on the ability of the father to maintain a paternal relationship with the child. While these categorical exclusions are found in nearly every state’s formal rules, there are nonetheless examples of departures from them, some longstanding, that exist in particular circumstances, when the economic and social realities have overridden them. The increasing tension between the traditional rules and modern economic and social realities seems likely to present occasions to consider the rules’ reform. This paper asks whether the traditional rules are in fact consistent with the beliefs of citizens as to what the law should provide. It does so by presenting a random sample of several hundred citizens with a set of cases in which they are asked to decide the appropriate level of child support. We then infer their preferred rules by considering how their answers vary with changes in the custodial mother’s circumstances. Results in the cases are supplemented with Likert questions probing citizen views on statements of principle. The results show considerable support for taking remarriage into account in setting child support obligations, especially when the stepfather’s income is higher. While the mother’s relocation to a location distant from the father does not alone affect the support judgments of most respondents, the same move has a significant impact on respondents’ judgments when it is combined with either remarriage or an increase in the mother’s income. These effects are seen in both male and female respondents, although females are less responsive than males to remarriage without relocation. Our respondents appear to take both social and financial factors into account in these judgments, and overall prefer rules that are more nuanced than the categorical rules found in traditional child support law.
Note: A later version of this paper, with changes that are substantive as well as stylistic, has been published in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 2, 145–160. That version is © 2015 American Psychological Association. See the first author's web site.
Keywords: child support, remarriage
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