To protect children of divorce from the economic harm of divorce, the Utah Judicial Council voted unanimously Monday to adopt uniform child support guidelines that become effective Oct. 1, 1988.
Representing the Utah Court of Appeals judges who hear divorce appeals, Judge Regnal Garff applauded the new guidelines as a "beginning in eradicating the vastly inadequate and inconsistent awards given in the past that cause children to suffer."He described the disheartening situation of "an army of child drifters" who wander the streets because their divorced mothers can't afford child care on low support payments. Several of these children sleep under trolley cars at Salt Lake's Trolley Square, Garff said.
Not only do these children face economic hardships, they become the center of bitter arguments of divorced parents who feel their support awards are unfair.
"If people who divorce know what is consistent and fair, it will diffuse a lot of the antagonism caused by disparate awards," said Garff.
The adoption of the guidelines marks the end of a year-long, intensive study and series of public hearings conducted by a 17-member child support task force.
Because their work centered on the volatile issues of children, divorce and money, the past year has been filled with controversy and compromise.
The revised child support guidelines place Utah sixth from the lowest in the amount of average payment among 42 states. This final proposal is about 20 percent lower than the original guidelines debated at public hearings.
At the Judicial Council meeting Monday, opponents of the guidelines accused the judiciary of over-stepping its authority and urged judges to give the Legislature responsibility for any changes in support guidelines.
Representing Utah Parents for Children's Rights, attorney Mark Van Wagoner said that non-custodial fathers regard child support as "taxation without representation."
He complained further, "It's as if clowns are sitting on the bench who have to be told what to do."
In his endorsement of the guidelines, Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Zimmerman noted that legislators are nervous about the guidelines because of the extreme controversy the emotional subject generates.
"Many of the contentions around the guidelines really were complaints about the divorce process," he said.
While some legislators asked the Judicial Council to postpone adoption of the guidelines, Zimmerman said that judges could no longer perpetuate "what no one can defend" - inadequate, disparate child support awards.
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.
Public outcry convinced members the new scale should not apply retroactively. This means a parent could not go back to court to change a support order just because of the new guidelines. If other circumstances change (or example, the income of a parent increases) a party could go back to court and the judge would consider the guidelines as part of the totality of evidence.
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 adopted Monday will only apply to couples who divorce after Oct. 1, l988.
If a couple's child spends at least 35 percent of his time in overnight visits in the non-custodial parent's home, then the new guidelines don't apply.
An oversight committee will be created to evaluate the guidelines on a regular basis to ensure the new standards do what they are intended to do - improve the lot of Utah's children of divorce.