By: Kenya N. Rahmaan
These additional costs can include medical bills, day care expenses or other expenses that have not been included in the child support order but has been deemed a financial responsibility by the custodial parent and the court system. The interest charged on late child support payments are one of the leading causes of huge child support arrears, or debt, to accumulate so rapidly in such a short amount of time. More than half of the states in the U.S. charge interest on child support debt. Based on a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures or NCSL (2013), interest rates range from 4% in Mississippi and New Mexico to 12% in states such as Kentucky and Colorado. Even though the government acknowledges that most child support arrears are owed by parents with low or no income the system seems like a trap when parents continue to be charged interest when they cannot afford the regular payments. One study conducted by Sorensen, Sousa and Schaner of The Urban Institute (2007) showed that 40% of the current obligors have no or low reported income, but they generated 60% of the unpaid current support. Parents that struggle to pay support should not be expected to pay even more money for imaginary debt created out of thin air in interest.
Child support arrears cannot be forgiven no matter what the circumstances thanks to the enactment of the Bradley Amendment. This amendment mandated that child support arrears be considered a judgment by law (Sorensen, et al., 2007). This law permitted states to keep people in debt for indefinite amounts of time. According to Douglas Reid Wiener of the American Law Division, the Bradley Amendment prohibits the retroactive State modification of child support arrearages. Even in situations where paternity fraud has occurred, the man named as the father is still responsible for child support arrears. Child support arrears are the reason that states report such huge amounts of arrears when compared to actual support allegedly owed by noncustodial parents.
When looking at the child support collections in the state of Alabama, the open 230,000 open child support cases demands an alarming amount of arrears. According to NCSL (2014), the amount of current support due in 2013 was $431,286,947 while the amount in arrears owed was $3,143,992,093. Alabama charges 7.5% interest on late payments and only offers one debt forgiveness program to its parents that have fallen behind on child support payments. The program is offered on a case-by-case basis and has strict criteria before it is granted to the applicant. An interest rebate law allows the forgiveness of interest owed to the state and the custodial parents in cases where current support is paid consistently for at least 12 months, (NCSL, 2014).
A significant catch to this and many debt forgiveness programs is that the custodial parent must agree with the terms of the program. Because many child support cases are bitter, the discretion of any decisions made should not be granted to either parent. Besides that, the retroactive arrears owed to the state cannot be dismissed because of The Bradley Amendment. This program, like so many others, only offer an illusion of possible debt forgiveness but in reality the debt will never be erased. Florida, in keeping up with the other 49 states, reports a disproportionate amount of actual support owed in comparison to the amount of arrears owed in approximately 855,000 open child support cases. The amount of current support owed in 2013 was $2,087,249,201 while child support arrears totaled $7,407,508,809, (NCSL, 2014).
There is no set interest amount in Florida for late payments, however, interest is assessed because the child support order is a judgment in the court of law. According to NCSL (2013), interest charges are assessed by the clerk of court in the county that issued the order or otherwise maintains the official payment record. This explains why the arrears are so much higher than the amount of money that is actually owed in payments. Florida does not offer any specific debt forgiveness opportunities nor are the limited programs offered on a regular basis. Debt continues to accumulate with no opportunity to waive the money owed to the state or the arrears.
Finally, in Michigan the difference between the support owed and arrears is astronomical. The NCSL (2014), reported that the current amount of support due was $1,430,429,570 in 2013, yet the arrears owed were $8,406,415,371. The state is prohibited from charging interest on child support debt but the legislators have found a loophole in order to charge a fee on late payments anyway. A surcharge is calculated at six month intervals at five-year US Treasury bill rate plus one percent per annum, (NCSL, 2013). This law explains the huge difference between the support owed and the huge arrears amount.
Michigan does offer a few programs that will reduce arrears, but again, strict criteria must be met before a waiver is granted. One of the laws allow the noncustodial parents who do not have the ability pay the arrearage in full, presently or in foreseeable future, to request a payment plan (for a minimum 24 months), (NCSL, 2013). The problem, of course, is that most parents that owe child support debt are under or unemployed. The majority of parents would not owe any debt if they had money to pay child support.
The law violates equal protections that are supposed to protect low-income citizens. Most working and wealthy people never face the severe punishments that are the direct result of not paying extremely high arrearage amounts. Although some states offer some form of a debt forgiveness program, the sheer volume of the arrearages across the country prove that the programs are not effective in reducing child support debt. The debt continues to grow while the chances of the children collecting any of the money shrinks.
The arrears are mainly state owed and the are owed to the state because of the mandate of signing rights to child support payments over to the state when applying for any public assistance. The Bradley Amendment prohibits retroactive debt forgiveness on child support arrears in any situation. The child support system guarantees that parents will always be in debt if, for whatever reason, he or she cannot afford the child support payments. The money owed to the state could be better spent on the children especially since the program is supposed to be operating in the best interest of the children. It is time to force the government to change the child support laws because they are legally robbing children, parents and families across the nation.
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