tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

Using money as leverage - UR DOIN IT RONG!

Yesterday I posted about this site. I actually had a visit from one of the members last night *waves*, encouraging us to go and post our opinions over there to improve learning for everyone. I'd just like to say, given the views of many people who read this - if you do go over there to comment, play nice! You may not agree with the perspectives expressed there, but nobody will listen to you if you piss them off.

Ok, having said that, the reason I was there was related to Child Support. I first found the site a few years ago, when as a non-custodial parent I felt I was getting a raw deal, and I was looking for support. Unfortunately at the time, the strong anti-women sentiments expressed by some people on the site caused me to feel that I'd be unwelcome, and I didn't stay. I found my way back there yesterday, now being on the other side of that fence as a custodial parent and once again looking for support. I didn't find the support I was looking for, but re-reading the despair expressed by so many non-custodial parents (and the bitterness, anger and IMO misplaced vitriol towards women), got me thinking - maybe it's time to have a look at my situation as its been from both sides, and address this question of 'fairness'.

For anyone who doesn't know me, I'm a woman. I have one son who is now 14. His father and I separated when he was 2, there was shared custody until I moved away when he was 4. There was then a custody dispute, since there could no longer be shared custody. His father ended up with custody, and I paid Child Support from age 5 to age 13. Earlier this year, my son chose to come and live with me, so after 8 years of the non-custodial paying parent experience, I am now a full time custodial parent.

The breakdown of my marriage and the subsequent custody dispute was sufficiently nasty that communication has been difficult, and Child Support issues have always been dealt with by IRD summary assessment. This takes your gross income, subtracts a living allowance, then takes 18% of what's left and gives it to the custodial parent as your contribution to the upkeep of your child.

For me, over the time that I was paying, the living allowance increased from $9000 to $14000 - this was always for one person with no other dependents, paying for one child. So, is that fair? Based on my current living situation where I pay $170 for rent+expenses, ~$50 a week for food, ~$40 a week for petrol and say ~$500 a year for clothing, that adds up to $14020 - so yeah, IMO not that far out, for an allowance that is supposed to cover just the essentials.

As for the actual amount taken, for me 18% added up to approximately $600 a month, or $150 a week. That was a sizeable chunk of money to come out of my wages before I saw it, and I always felt that it was probably more than half what it costs to raise a kid. I was frustrated that I didn't get any say in how that money was used (I would have liked to see some of it go towards a savings account for my kid's future and even suggested this to his father, to no avail), or any accounting of the way it was spent. I felt that I was throwing $150 a week down a long black tube, and the financial burden was sufficient that I felt I didn't have spare to instigate those savings on top of the CS payments.

Things I felt were unfair about this: I still had to pay even when my son was staying with me in holidays - so essentially I was paying for him twice at those times, while his father was getting money even when he wasn't supporting him. Not being given any indication as to whether my contirbution was a fair share of what it cost, and having no option to put money over and above 'my half' into some kind of savings for the kid.

Something I should also mention here is that my income was not always sufficient to warrant such a high CS payment. There were times when I was paying the minimum (at the time $10 a week) - which is not really a contribution at all, and doesn't come close to half what it costs to raise a kid. It was when my payments got over $70 a week that I started to think maybe I was paying above my share and maybe something could be saved, but I had no way of knowing for sure.

Bear in mind here that I am deliberately avoiding any issues of me supposedly increasing the income of someone who I fully expected to spend the majority of my contribution on alcohol, or reference to their having found a new partner who was also contributing to the household. Those kind of things, while adding to my emotional burden and sense of resentment in that I often felt I was throwing money at people who already had enough and were wasting it, are not related to the fairness of the Child Support system in terms of my contribution vs my income vs actually supporting my kid. I feel that Child Support is supposed to be about parents contributing to their kids' wellbeing, and I'll address things I think could change to make it fairer later.

So much for being the paying parent. In summary, I felt put upon by the arbitrariness of the amount and the complete lack of power in where my money went and what was done with it. It was a financial burden as my biggest expense each week, and once my income got over a certain amount I felt penalised for 'doing well' in that I was then contributing over and above what I felt was necessary, without the option of directing that 'extra' towards my son's future.

And then he came to live with me, and the tables were turned. The first thing I want to say here is that raising a kid is a LOT more expensive than I thought. Yesterday I made a spreadsheet of expenses for it, which included rent for his room, power/utilities expenses ($736/month), food ($200/month), transport to get him to and from school ($80/month), school fees ($40/month), clothing ($40/month), pocket money (~$80/month) and extras such as when I go somewhere and have coffee or such, having to buy him something too (~$80/month). Some of these might be a bit conservative or wrong, because he hasn't been here a year yet, and there are definitely things I haven't accounted for - but if his father were to ask for itemised accounting of what I'm spending on my son, this would be the basis for it.

It adds up to $1262 a month. So, as it turns out, my $600 a month was actually pretty close to the mark. The CS I am supposed to be receiving based on my son's father's income is ~$510 a month. I should also be getting $160 a month in Independent Family Tax Credit. Take that off the expenses I've listed and it comes to $592 coming out of my pocket a month to raise this kid.

So in terms of whether or not I was financially better off paying CS, or receiving it and actually caring for the kid, it comes out pretty even. It was an eye opener for me to discover this.

However, one of the issues of being a custodial parent is how hard it is to actually get that money if the non-custodial parent doesn't pay. I haven't received anything, it's been 6 months, and so I'm actually down $600 a month from where I was when I was paying CS. But that isn't anything to do with the fairness of the system, it's about individuals and the way they operate.

So for me, the CS assessment system has worked out relatively fair. But this isn't to say the system does. Why not? Well, it doesn't take into account individual circumstances.

My situation has two parents with more or less the same income - so the kid moving from one parent to another isn't a big deal in terms of the money that gets shifted around. What if one parent had substantially more income than another? If my son's father were earning a lot less, my CS entitlement would be a lot smaller, and so the majority of the burden of cost for the kid would fall on me, regardless of how little I was earning. If I were earning a top income, the non-custodial parent would still have to contribute the same amount even though I didn't really need it, which would be a penalty for him without being any real advantage to my son. If I were living in a different place with different associated costs, there would be the same issues - if my rent were less then his father's contribution would be more than a 'fair share', and if my rent were more, the contribution would not be 'fair'.

I do think that paying according to your means is about as fair as the system can be in terms of the financial ask from the non-custodial parent. If my son's father were on a benefit, there's no way he could come up with $600 a month for his half of his child's expenses, and live himself - it would be ridiculous to ask him to - in which case contributing 18% of his income seems reasonable without being crippling. But if he's financially well-off, then paying his half is not going to take food out of his own mouth, and he should pay.

I really think there should be some assessment of individual circumstances - the cost of raising a child in Opotiki is going to be different from that of raising one in central Wellington - and surely parental contributions should be based on what it actually costs to raise the child? I know that as a non-custodial parent I had no idea whether my contribution was actually a fair share of that burden, and as a custodial parent I've learned a bit about what it actually does cost - and importantly, while I need the help for my son's expenses, I don't want a handout from his father for my own 'maintenance' over and above what it costs to raise my kid.

I may be unusual in that, but I don't think so. I also think that a lot of the bitterness surrounding Child Support relates to the feelings of powerlessness that come with being a non-custodial parent, and the way in which people use children and money to get at each other after a relationship breakdown. There are definitely cases of custodial parents using CS claims to 'get at' their exes, and there are equally cases of non-custodial parents making their income appear much smaller on paper in order to avoid paying. And that's sad.

(it's also sad that non-custodial parents who then have a child into a new relationship don't get a reduction in CS that equates to what they have to pay for their existing one - how is one child worth $150 a week and another only worth $18?)

So in terms of the stuff I read on that website yesterday, I really wish people could get some kind of handle on what they are paying/getting and how it relates to what their child actually costs - because I think that'd go a long way towards making it more about the contribution to their kid's upbringing and less about who's living the high life of whose back.

And I really really REALLY wish it would stop being about men vs women. The CS system does need a rethink, but it isn't in any way about fathers or mothers. The issue there is that it's still usually the mother that gets custody, and that's a Family Court issue. And it's based in the idea that the mother is usually the primary caregiver and the man the primary breadwinner. That idea does neither men nor women any favours, it's one we're all trying to get past, and it's the main reason for all the Child Support casualties out there and the existence of websites like MENZ.

And that's a damn shame.

Finally, a semi-geek question. I seem to be unable to run video chat in Skype. I have the latest Skype, the latest drivers and the latest DirectX. What I don't have is a machine that can find its own sound card. The new OS is a work in progress, and the sound card recognition is one of the things that's in progress. ;-) Is the lack of audio likely to be anything to do with why I can't make or receive video calls? And if that's the case, can anyone recommend an app that allows video and text chat without needing sound?
Tags: child support, men vs women, the system is borked
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