Phase 2 of the Survey of Child Support Awards: Final Report
As noted in section 2.2, the information available to data capture clerks varies widely across the court sites participating in this project. For example, clerks in some areas have available to them the entire file documenting all activities in a particular case, while clerks in other areas may have ready access only to the final order or judgment. Despite this limitation of the data collected for this phase of the project, a reliable database currently consisting of more than 51,000 cases has been generated in Phase 2. This database provides much insight into the implementation and use of the Federal Child Support Guidelines. In particular, since data for Phase 2 of this project have now been collected for six years, information on trends over time and the extent to which the Guidelines have met their stated objectives is available.
Several noteworthy trends in child support order amounts and related factors have been observed over the course of Phase 2. These trends include:
- The proportion of cases that were contested decreased consistently. In 1998, 18.8 percent of cases were contested; this proportion decreased to 11.8 percent in 1999, 8.9 percent in 2000, 7.9 percent in 2001, 7.8 percent in 2002 and 5.7 percent in 2003.
- There was a tendency for the proportion of both paying and receiving parents with legal representation to decrease over time. The proportion of receiving parents with legal representation ranged from a high of 86.1 percent in 1999 to a low of 71.9 percent in 2003. Similarly, the proportion of paying parents with legal representation ranged from 75.5 percent in 1998 to 60.1 percent in 2003.
- The percentage of cases with sole custody to the mother decreased modestly over time from a high of 80.2 percent in 1999 to a low of 76.5 percent in 2003. There was a corresponding tendency for the percentage of cases reporting shared custody to increase over time, from a low of 4.8 percent in 1998 to a high of 8.4 percent in 2003.
- There was a general increase across over time in the proportion of cases in which the order amount was equal to the table amount. This proportion ranged from a low of 50.5 percent in 1998 to a high of 63.4 percent in 2002. The proportion of cases reporting child support order amounts less than the table amounts remained quite consistent across years. The proportion of cases reporting order amounts in excess of table amounts decreased across time from a high of 38.8 percent in 1998 to a low of 25.8 percent in 2002.
- The proportion of cases in which special or extraordinary expenses were included remained quite consistent across time, and ranged from a low of 31.1 percent in 2002 to a high of 33.3 in 2003.
- There was a general increase over time in compliance with section 13 of the Child Support Guidelines, which specifies information that should be included in a child support order. For example, in 1998, 83.3 percent of child support orders included the name of each child to whom the order relates; by 2003, this proportion had increased to 96.1 percent. Similarly, in 1998, 69.9 percent of cases included the dates on which child support payments were to be made; in 2003, this proportion was 82.3 percent.
The findings of the present study indicate that, in many cases, the stated objectives of the Guidelines are being met.
For example, the data support the conclusion that the stated objective of the Child Support Guidelines to
“establish a fair standard of support for children that ensures that they continue to benefit from the financial means of both spouses after separation” is being met. Results show that in a majority of cases, the actual order amount is equal to or higher than that specified in the table. Thus:
- Fifty-eight (58) percent of cases had child support order amounts that were equal to the amounts specified in the Guidelines tables as specified in the order or judgment. This indicates a high degree of predictability of child support amounts for cases in similar circumstances.
- Thirty-one (31) percent of cases reported child support amounts greater than those specified in the Guidelines tables, suggesting that in many cases, judges are viewing the table amount as a “floor” that needs to be increased if warranted by the circumstances of a particular case, frequently by ordering special or extraordinary expenses.
- Only 11 percent of cases reported child support order amounts that were lower than the amount specified in the Guidelines tables.
Further, over the course of Phase 2, the proportion of cases with order amounts equal to the table amount has increased, from a low of 51 percent in 1998 to a high of 63 percent in 2002.
The data also support the conclusion that the stated objective of the Child Support Guidelines to
“ensure consistent treatment of spouses and children who are in similar circumstances” is being met. Results show that:
- The amount of child support order amounts steadily increased as paying parents' incomes and the number of children in the case increased.
- Income information was available in a substantial percentage of cases (78 percent for paying parents and 46 percent for receiving parents), indicating that disclosure of financial information is occurring in most cases in a manner specified by the Guidelines.
The low proportion of contested cases (9.3 percent of cases) also provides some limited evidence that the objective to
“reduce conflict and tension between spouses by making the calculation of child support orders more objective” is also being met. Without baseline measures of these variables prior to implementation of the Child Support Guidelines, we cannot state with certainty that the Guidelines have resulted in lower levels of conflict and tension. However, the proportion of contested cases decreased steadily across time, and ranged from a high of 18.8 percent in 1998 to a low of 5.7 percent in 2003. The decrease in the number of contested cases over time may reflect the fact that, as lawyers and parents became more familiar with the Guidelines and the courts resolved various contentious interpretive issues, more cases could be settled without undue conflict.
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