New Support Guidelines Strive for Fairness

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A few weeks ago I joined over 100 lawyers and mediators from Eastern Iowa for a full day seminar to learn about the new State of Iowa Child Support Guidelines that will go into effect July 1, 2009. Guest speakers at the conference included Judge Anuradha Vaitheswaran, Co-Chair of the Committee to Review Child Support Guidelines, who provided a brief overview of Iowa’s child support history and explained why the new changes are necessary.

Judge Vaitheswaran believes that the new Child Support Guidelines will address some inequities in the old model. As background, in the late 1980’s, the federal government ruled that states must standardize their support guidelines, and review these standards every four years. Iowa’s guidelines are based on the premise that both parents pay an amount "reasonable and necessary for supporting a child." Until now, Iowa’s every-four-year revisions have been based on consumer price index (CPI) cost of living adjustments.

Economic changes and rising health care costs, however, have rendered the old model inadequate. According to Judge Vaitheswaran, the July 1 guidelines will ease the burden on low-income parents who do not have custody of their child or children, while also more equitably determining how medical insurance costs factor into parental support payments. Additionally, the new guidelines will cut down on the “notch effect” inherent in the bracketed income models used to determine support. Previously, the brackets used broader increments for reporting monthly earnings. This meant, for example, that a parent deducting union dues from her income (which should lower a support payment) could in some cases increase her child support responsibility, while at the other end of the spectrum, a parent's higher income might land that parent in a bracket where they were paying less than their income afforded. The new formula uses small divisions to avoid these types of inequity.

Additionally, the event, sponsored by the non-profit Mediation Services of Eastern Iowa (MSEI), featured a panel of local judges who addressed the impact of mediation on family law cases in their courts. Judges Thomas, Grady and Turner underscored the value of mediation in easing the court's burden. They suggested introducing mediation into the divorce process earlier, as well as multiple sessions to help the disputing parties avoid a court trial.

Several attorneys attending the conference stressed the importance of explaining to divorcing parents the differences between joint custody (sharing decision making regarding a child’s welfare) and joint physical care (sharing care of the child between households). Parents should understand that joint legal custody does not require joint physical care. Understanding this distinction helps parents to know their choices and make informed decisions.

Here’s the takeaway: As the recession impacts households, including families’ ability to sell their homes, qualify for credit, and in some cases, afford the costs of divorce, couples are feeling unprecedented economic strain. New Iowa Child Support Guidelines may affect current child support payments by as much as 10%, which may send some couples back to court for child support modifications, while newly divorcing couples may find the charts more equitable for all involved.

For an overview of Iowa's Child Support Guidelines
For information about MSEI

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