Determining child support is a tricky process, especially when exacerbated by the stress of divorce and custody battles. When your economic future and that of your child comes down to a formula, some frustration is perhaps inevitable.
Alexandria resident Christian Paasch knows this personally, because he went through it almost a decade ago.
Though he has since married and is now raising an infant son with his wife, Paasch also has a 9-year-old son from a previous relationship that ended in 2007.
A guardian ad litem assigned to Paasch’s case recommended that he and his former partner share custody of their son, but their judge gave the child’s mother primary custody and allowed Paasch monthly visitations.
Paasch says that his child support payment order amounted to almost $1,000 a month, not counting inflation. However, the real issue was that his ex-partner then moved with his son to New Mexico.
In other words, he had to choose between traveling to see his son once a month and paying child support.
“Obviously, I’m going to pay my child support,” Paasch said.
Though the situation wasn’t ideal, he calls himself lucky. He had a “decent-paying” job with the Department of Defense after being honorably discharged from the Air Force in 2006, along with a supportive network of family and friends.
Paasch appealed the judge’s order and eventually got an agreement that allowed him to spend about half of each year with his son until the child was old enough to attend school, but it took him another year, a new lawyer and “tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees” to get there.
After attending some support groups for divorced fathers and mothers that he says he found unproductive, Paasch discovered the National Parents Organization, a nonprofit originally founded by four fathers in Massachussetts in 1998.
Originally called the Foundation for Fathers and Families, the National Parents Organization has moved away from its initial focus on advocating for fathers’ rights and now counts both men and women among its members, Paasch says.
The organization’s main goal is to make shared parenting standard in all states, and it seeks to reform family courts “to treat fathers and mothers as equally important to the well-being of their children,” according to the group’s website.
As founder of the NPO’s Virginia affiliate and chair of its executive committee, Paasch was also appointed to Virginia’s child support guidelines review panel in 2015 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The General Assembly established the 15-member child support guidelines review panel in Virginia Code Section 20-108.2, which requires that the panel reexamine the state’s child support guidelines every four years since 2001.
Though the specific panel members change with each cycle, there must always be four legislative members, three appointed by the Speaker for the House of Delegates and one by the Senate rules committee, and 11 non-legislative members selected by the governor.
Virginia calculates child support payments based on the number of children involved and the parents’ combined monthly gross income.
“[The panel’s] charge is to determine the adequacy of the guidelines and to make sure that the rewards that are calculated under the guidelines accurately reflect the costs and expenditures necessary to raise a child,” Division of Child Support Enforcement director and deputy commissioner Craig Burshem said.
Burshem is currently a member of the child support guidelines review panel as a representative of the Division of Child Support Enforcement, which is part of the Virginia Department of Social Services.
The panel’s 15 members gather once every few months in House room 1 of the Virginia State Capital building to discuss new research on families and child support and possible ways in which the guidelines should be updated.
The panel submits a report with its findings and recommendations to the governor and General Assembly at the end of each four-year session.
After consulting economists, labor statistics and other resources, the child support guidelines review panel made its most significant reform effort in 2014, when it recommended that the General Assembly revise the state’s child support payment numbers for the first time since 1995.
Before that overhaul, Virginia’s statutory guidelines for child support hadn’t received a major update since the 1980s, according to Lawrence Diehl, a partner with the Richmond-based family law firm Barnes & Diehl.
Diehl is considered an expert in the field of family law, receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Virginia State Bar’s family law section in 2000. He has served on the Virginia child support guidelines review panel for 15 to 20 years and is also a member of the Virginia Family Law Coalition, which is part of the Virginia Bar Association and frequently contributes research to the review panel.
The review panel will turn in the report it’s currently working on around the end of 2017, and its next meeting isn’t scheduled until April 2017, but the group is already considering potential changes.
At the panel’s last meeting on Oct. 5, Paasch delivered a presentation recommending the removal of the 90-day threshold and 1.4 multiplier that used in shared custody cases.
In Virginia, if a noncustodial parent spends 91 or more days in a year with their child, the amount they must pay in child support decreases, since the childcare obligations are presumably more evenly split between the two parents.
In these situations, the Code of Virginia says that the amount of child support determined by the combined gross income formula is multiplied by 1.4, meaning that payments increase by about 40 percent compared to situations where one parent has sole custody.
“The reason that was implemented was to help mitigate the impact of the 90-day cliff,” Paasch said of the 1.4 multiplier.
Paasch argues that this multiplier creates a disincentive for parents to share time with their child.
Virginia originally set the threshold at 110 days, and there was a more significant drop in required payment, creating a “cliff effect,” but the General Assembly changed the policy to 90 days in 1994.
According to Diehl, research at the time pointed to 90 days as an ideal length of time to justify a more gradual decrease in child support payments, assuming that a noncustodial parent has standard visitation of every other weekend, occasional weekdays and holidays, and a few weeks during the summer.
“If the mother was going to get $600 at 109 [days], she may only get $300 at 110, and so they would fight getting that extra day,” Diehl said. “We try to encourage more time with both parents, which is good, but it’s hard to do if the support’s going to drop so much, because it is a financial impact.”
The difference in support before and after the 90-day threshold is $117 per month based on the average net monthly income for both men and women in Virginia, according to Paasch, who argues that’s still a significant gap for many people.
Meeting that 90-day threshold isn’t as easy as it may seem. For instance, Paasch’s son still lives out-of-state, making it difficult for him to regularly see him.
Moreover, Virginia defines a day as a period of 24 hours, so if one parent picks up their child after school, keeps them overnight and drops them back off at school the next day, that wouldn’t count as a full day since time at school isn’t included.
“There’s a better way to do that,” Paasch said of determining payment in shared custody situations. “We can be more effective, we can be more efficient, we can be more modern, and we can do so in a way that benefits children the most from a personal, psychological, and financial perspective.”
The child support guidelines review panel ultimately decided following Paasch’s presentation not to pursue his recommendations.
According to the meeting’s official minutes, Burshem noted that the Division of Child Support Enforcement collects approximately $660 million per year in child support payments and has gotten about 63 percent of the support currently owed, which is on par with the national rate.
Burshem says that there are always some challenges when it comes to collecting child support, but the division has tools it can use to ensure payment. For example, if someone doesn’t pay the child support that they owe, their driver’s license can be suspended or their tax returns intercepted.
Diehl and Fairfax-based Hottell Family Law Group founder Dennis Hottell, another family law attorney on the review panel, both say they have rarely seen conflicts between parents over the shared custody threshold since it was changed from 110 days to 90.
“[If] the system isn’t broke, don’t fix it, and I don’t believe it’s broken,” Hottell said. “I believe the laws of Virginia on custody work very well, and I don’t think the judges have any problem implementing the statute currently.”
There are some other aspects of the child support guidelines that the review panel is examining to see if they need alteration.
During that same Oct. 5 meeting, the panel recommended that the Code of Virginia’s child support statute be amended to add language that would require the guidelines worksheet that lays out how payments are calculated is attached to all child support orders.
The panel also considered research on whether child support payments should be calculated differently based on children’s ages or the costs of living in different parts of the state.
Federal regulations currently require states to adopt a uniform set of guidelines, so Virginia might not legally be able to adjust the law for different jurisdictions, but questions regarding age or even what happens when children in the same family need different custody arrangements are still up for debate.
“With the guidelines right now, you get the same amount whether the child’s 17, 10 or 2,” Diehl said. “I’m not sure I’ve made my final decision on that issue, but that’s one we’re studying.”