Revised child support guidelines released Thursday place Utah in the low 25th percentile of the nation, dramatically reflecting compromises made as a result of public outcry against higher payments.
Describing the guidelines as a "good place to start in providing for the children of divorce," Judge Judith M. Billings said the guidelines are "slightly higher than what judges have been setting."In the past, child support awards have been arbitrary and unpredictable. The proposed guidelines, if adopted by the State Judicial Council, will provide uniformity, said Billings.
The council will vote on the revised guidelines at a public meeting June 27 in room 303 at the State Capitol. Copies of the guidelines will be available after June 1 at the State Court Administrator's Office, 230 S. Fifth East.
The revised guidelines are about 20 percent lower than those debated at recent public hearings.
According to the new scale, a non-custodial parent earning a gross monthly income of $3,000 would pay $323 a month for a 10-year-old child. That's assuming the non-custodial parent is also supporting another 10-year-old child at the same $323 payment. (The guidelines are based on the number of children and their ages.)
Billings, chairman of the 17-member Child Support Task Force, said the lower amount is due to complaints made by many non-custodial fathers and some judges at public hearings. They complained bitterly that the awards in the middle and upper incomes were too high.
"I don't think we should be proud that the Utah guidelines are among the lowest in the nation. But it shows task force members were willing to compromise and listen to the public," the judge said.
If the guidelines are adopted, a committee will further study the impact of the economic standard to determine if the amounts are adequate.
Another major compromise is the task force's decision to have guidelines apply only to divorce orders that occur after new guidelines become effective (if approved).
This means the higher standard will not automatically be applied to existing orders. If a divorced woman feels her child support payment is insufficient based on changing circumstances, she may take her case to court. The new guidelines could be considered as part of the totality of evidence to support her request for increased payment, but would not be used as a "presumptive standard," said Billings, who sits on Utah's Court of Appeals. Judges will make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Members of the task force engaged in emotional debates on the "existing order" issue before reaching a consensus. Those task force members representing impoverished women struggling to rear children on inadequate support payments agonized over a decision that seemed to abandon the committee's original intent - to provide a better economic support to children of divorce.
"Frankly, a compromise was needed to protect the entire package. It was decided that some guidelines, although they are ideal, would help children living under difficult financial conditions because of divorce. Task members were willing to set aside their own agendas for the benefit of the whole effort," the judge said.
"It's our belief, however, that if judges have the new guidelines in their hands, they will refer to them and have a more realistic idea of what it actually costs to rear children."
Non-custodial parents who have remarried and had children since their first marriage protested angrily against the original guidelines that placed children of the first marriage as a financial priority. They argued it would be unfair to ask second-marriage families to adjust their standard of living because of increased payments to the children of their first marriage.
The task force carefully re-evaluated the "second family" issue and determined that the new guidelines will not apply to existing orders.
The new standard will only apply to a couple who divorce after (and if) the guidelines are adopted.
Billings offers an example:
Assume the guidelines are adopted in October 1988. John and Mary divorce in January 1989. Mary becomes the custodial parent of their two children.
John remarries and has another child. Since his second family came after the child support payments had been established for his first two children, that payment would not be lowered because John has another child.
However, if Mary takes John to court in 1993 because John is earning twice his salary of 1989, John may count all three of his children in determining what portion of his income should go toward child support.
A fourth major compromise, said Billings, involved children of divorced parents who share physical custody of their children. If the couple's child spends at least 35 percent of overnight visits in a second home, then the new guidelines don't apply.
"Our task force feels very good about these guidelines. We've been as thorough and fair as we could be. We believe the guidelines will cause children to suffer less from the traumatic, economical consequences of divorce."