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Child Support and Responsibility

by Tim O'Brien
May 22, 2001

The sound and fury continue over the problem of what self-proclaimed children's advocates used to alliterate "Deadbeat Dads," but have now politically corrected to the much less lyrical "Deadbeat Parents." (Mere posturing, really -- only 3% are "Deadbeat Moms.")

The federal government has been pressuring our state to create a unified database to administer child support payments. The state has in turn threatened the ten counties that haven't yet joined.

Convinced that centralization is the solution, the latest is a federal edict that all states incorporate Social Security numbers into their drivers licenses to create a national ID (something the original proponents of the Social Security system absolutely swore on the Bible, the Constitution and their sainted mother's memory would never, ever be done) to facilitate tracking across state lines those who are under child support orders.

Ironically, we wouldn't have nearly the magnitude of the problem if the government hadn't abdicated one of its most fundamental responsibilities -- providing a forum for dispute resolution -- by adopting a seriously flawed "No-Fault" divorce law back in 1972.

The catalyst for the change is easy to understand.

Social institutions in general were beginning to crumble as the "If it feels good, do it" generation transmogrified into the "me" generation, just as its members started coming of age.

And, despite the fact that marriage is often called a "contract," it isn't. One of the basic criteria for forming a valid contract under centuries-old common law is that it must be enforceable.

While two people might promise one another eternal love and devotion, as a practical matter there is no way to make a legally binding agreement to that effect.

So, the law was modified to allow for "No-fault" divorce, eliminating the need for a merely dissatisfied spouse to specify grounds in order to be released from his or her marriage "contract."

Since by legislative decree a showing of fault is no longer necessary, either party may breach the putative contract and incur little, if any, liability.

This situation, already both unfair and profoundly life-altering for the innocent spouse, becomes truly traumatic when there are also dependent children.

At least, it does if the defendant is the husband/father. This circumstance is in fact the first blow in the knockdown that presages virtually every "Deadbeat Dad."

A plaintiff wife/mother comes into court suing for dissolution of her marriage contract, stating no grounds whatever beyond the incontestably vague assertion that "there has been a breakdown in the marriage relationship to the extent that the objects of matrimony have been destroyed."

Then, since the contemporary social presumption is that "the best interests of the child" are to be raised by mom, she is almost always granted full, physical custody.

Thus, she lays claim to the innocent defendant's children. And, in order to facilitate raising those children, his home and all of their (previously, jointly held) property, as well.

In other words she essentially retains his life. She merely has him forcibly removed from it.

Needless to say, this sometimes provokes just a bit of resentment from the dispossessed and banished husband/father.

Next comes the "two-punch."

The fact that mom is not even financially capable of supporting his home and children is remedied by compelling him to continue to pay many of his erstwhile family's bills -- his own (now separate) needs, notwithstanding -- handing over a third or more of his income for as much as the better part of the next two decades. He is, incidentally, legally prohibited from demanding any kind of accounting of what becomes of the money.

Unsurprisingly, some in such circumstances are less than enthusiastically cooperative.

But, any objections are met by the indignant accusation that he is attempting to shirk his responsibilities. Of course, in point of fact, "Deadbeat Dad" was never actually offered the option of retaining them.

Now, there's really not much we can do about people -- male or female -- who will selfishly turn their spouse and children's lives upside down by ripping apart a family without even offering a coherent reason. A contract to love someone is, as previously observed, unenforceable.

However, we could greatly reduce the child support collection problem by simply amending our no-fault divorce law to give the (rebuttable) presumption of custody of any minor children to the defendant, regardless of gender.

It is, after all, not unreasonable to presume that "the best interests of the child" will be better served by remaining with the parent who does not abandon commitments for frivolous reasons and wants to maintain the family.

The spouse/parent who still wishes to leave may, of course, do so -- with his or her clothes and any other personal belongings. The more dedicated, responsible party should keep the children, home, property, and claim on future child support.

The immediate effect of such a change would undoubtedly be a plummeting divorce rate, thereby reducing the necessity for child support orders to begin with.

The difficulties of collecting in the few remaining cases would be significantly reduced since the only parents who would incur such obligations are those who have voluntarily taken them on in exchange for being released from the marriage "contract."

And the rest of us could skip getting a national ID.

Tim O'Brien is the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party of Michigan.

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