Mediation and Child Support: It's About More than Money

by William H. Donahue, Jr., Esq., APM

Pennsylvania and New Jersey, like most states, have a fairly simple, state mandated method for calculating child support. Divorce lawyers and the courts use software programs that can calculate it almost instantly. You can even find the forms to do it yourself in libraries or on line (often for a fee). So why are child support issues often so difficult to resolve, and why is there an epidemic of unpaid child support?

The problem is that child support is often viewed only as a financial issue when all too often it is a deeply emotional one. Something has gone profoundly wrong when a parent walks away from the obligation to support his or her children. A parent who fails to pay child support is often angry and bitter. He or she usually has a combative relationship with the other parent and little or no relationship with the children. Unless these issues are raised and dealt with, problems will come up very shortly after the divorce.

As a mediator I help couples reach support agreements that they want to abide by. Sometimes this requires the use of a therapist who helps the couple work through issues stemming from anger or depression. Sometimes it involves a frank discussion of how destructive it is to children to feel that one parent has abandoned them to the extent that he or she will not help provide the things they need and want in life. I always remind parents they cannot hurt each other without hurting their children.

A good parenting plan is a crucial ingredient of a workable support agreement. If custody and visitation are set up so that the parent paying support feels like an outsider, or worse, like an intruder in the lives of his or her children, anger and resentment are inevitable.

Beyond Basic Child Support
Another important financial issue involving children is how educational expenses will be handled. Many couples agree to share these expenses in the ratio of their incomes at the time each child is ready to go to college. Some couples agree to decide this issue when the children are college age. But there are problems with this because it does not resolve the issue. Couples also need to decide who will pay for sports, hobbies, camps, vacations, etc. They need to decide if child support will cover these items or if they will be shared in some way in addition to child support. It is amazing how these issues can become battles when people have not discussed them in advance.

I Want to Support My Kids, But . . .
One concern the paying parent has is that the support will not be used to pay for the children's needs. The sentiment I often hear is: "I want to support my kids, but she gives them hot dogs and then goes clothes shopping." In some cases this complaint is legitimate. But the solution is not to stop paying child support.

I encourage people who feel this way to come back to mediation to work through the problem so the parent paying support can be comfortable that his or her children are benefiting from those payments. Many parents who pay support ask for an accounting of how the money is spent. Courts don't usually grant this and it is rarely agreed to in mediation. A better solution is to keep the lines of communication open so each parent can discuss concerns with the other. The communication skills people learn during mediation make this much easier to do.