The XX Factor

If “Deadbeat” Parents Aren’t Punished, Should They Be Allowed To Fight for Custody and Visitation?

In California, deadbeat parents owe $19.2 billion in unpaid child support . In this economy, many states face similar realities; the situation’s grim enough that, even as we speak, the Supreme Court is deciding whether such parents have a right to free (read: taxpayer provided) counsel when states try to collect and jail time is on the table. With 1 in 4 U.S. kids raised by a single parent and divorce rates unlikely to fall much, it’s way past time to do some serious re-thinking about our divorce policies.

The family court system is so dysfunctional in so many ways (many of which are beyond its control but many of which are not), it will take reform on such a fundamental level that it will require decades to accomplish. (That’s because we’re talking about lawyers’ livelihoods, here. And they get to “police” themselves. Ha!) But here’s a question that only a veteran family court litigant would know to ask: How many of these deadbeat – for whatever reason – parents are simultaneously keeping the ex in court over custody and visitation?

I haven’t been able to find out the answer, but going on personal experience, I’m going to bet there’s some serious overlap. It doesn’t take long for non-millionaire, long-term litigants to end up embittered pro se, “jail house lawyers” haunting the halls of family court, mispronouncing Latin phrases, and trying to get their judges disbarred. It couldn’t be easier to file petition after petition, whether just to abuse your ex or because you legitimately believe in what you’re doing. So, your un- or underemployed ex isn’t paying child support, and isn’t being punished for it, but you still have to take care of your children. It’s way beyond insult to injury to have to spend the hellacious amounts of time and tsuris involved with all those never-ending motions, appeals, discovery demands, and record-keeping of every phone call, every email, every report card, and why the kids had so many cavities. Until you’ve experienced it, you just can’t imagine how soul-destroying being a family court litigant is. Other kinds of cases – murder, rape, insider trading – end eventually. Family court cases never have to, not if one of you doesn’t want it to. But why should a custodial parent who never knows when, or how much, financial help will come from the ex have to add litigation to their plate? Eventually, you accept that you’ll be getting little or no help from the ex. Fine. Eventually, you accept that they’ll pay no penalty for it. Fine. But accept that they get to keep dragging you into court over the kids they’re not helping to support? Not fine.

Though my dusty old JD hasn’t helped me one iota during my own now seven-year presence in family court, it isn’t so dusty that I don’t recognize the unsavoryness of this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: If a noncustodial parent isn’t paying child support, and isn’t being punished for nonpayment, is it fair that they get to force their single-parent ex, struggling to support their children alone, to fight them off in court at the same time?

A deadbeat’s ability to evade responsibility to pay child support while simultaneously exercising the right to litigate against the ex strikes me as what’s known in the law as a “one way ratchet.” In this case, rights but no responsibilities. Fine, don’t jail the deadbeats. OK, don’t charge them interest. But at least declare a moratorium on petitions, appeals, and the like until both parents are living up to their responsibilities.