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Seeking child support reform in Illinois

By Callie Bretthauer
On February 3, 2013


About two years have passed since the Illinois Child Support Advisory Committee recommended that Illinois change the way it calculates child support.

Despite this recommendation and the fact that 38 states have already reformed their child support calculation models since the 1980s, Illinois appears to be less motivated to act quickly in updating a system that is outdated.

"I think it affects a lot of people and doesn't get talked about much," said Todd Bottom, an advanced doctoral student at DePaul who has been studying divorce and fathers' well-being. "Awareness needs to be created. I think that students here at DePaul could benefit tremendously from knowing about this current form. Many of them are or were affected in one way or another by the divorce of their own parents."

The current model Illinois uses is called "percentage of obligatory net income." Under this model, the noncustodial parent pays a flat percentage of his or her income based on the number of children. It fails to take into account the income of the parent who has custody and the amount of time the noncustodial parent spends with the child.

"Our formulas and how we calculate how much should be paid are out of whack with the rest of the United States," said Mike Doherty, chair member of the Children's Rights Council of Illinois, which advocates for cooperative and shared parenting.

The newly proposed income shares model looks at each parent's income and considers how much time the noncustodial parent spends with the child. Under the current model, how much the custodial parent earns is irrelevant.

"It is more rational economically," said Doherty. "It simply makes sense. Both parents are responsible for their child. That joint responsibility doesn't disappear when there's a divorce. Both should bear some sort of obligation for the child financially, not just one."

The new model is about more than just financial fairness. It is better for the child since it will result in less conflict and therefore, fewer custody battles. Other states with the updated income shares model, said Doherty, have shown a decrease in conflicts over the custody of a child.

Despite agreeing that there should be a transition to an income shares model, the Illinois Child Support Advisory Committee, a group whose task is to periodically review the state's child support guidelines, is still in the process of constructing a legislative draft to present to the General Assembly. It was expected to be presented last spring. Michael Gerhardt, who consults with the Illinois Fathers and other organizations that are active in family court reform, said that the issues lie with the specifics of the formula and how parenting time is factored in.

Currently, said Gerhardt, the battle is whether to use a gross or net model when looking at each parent's income.

"No one has shown or agreed on a formula as they are too engrossed in the gross versus net argument," said Gerhardt.

The other even greater battle is determining how much time a parent needs to spend with the child in order for it to play a factor in determining child support. Illinois is proposing that the noncustodial parent has to have at least 40 percent overnight time.

"My opinion is that it makes no sense," said Gerhardt. "The goal is for a child to be able to be supported when with either parent. At what percentage of time does a parent have fixed costs such as providing a bed, clothes and utilities? I guarantee that it is less than 40 percent."

The members of the Child Support Advisory Committee include politicians, lawyers, judges and legislators. Who lacks representation, said Gerhardt, are parents. More specifically, he said, obligor parents who will be affected the most are missing.

An updated system is long overdue. Despite this, the process still remains an extensive one, and the reform is not likely to be introduced until next year.

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