The following article about Georgia’s new child support guidelines appeared today in the Savannah Morning News:
After years of lobbying to get more favorable child-support laws for noncustodial parents, Zachary Holladay decided to try to take advantage of the new standards.
So, in January, the 43-year-old father of three from Roswell filed for a revision of the award he pays to his ex-wife. The first meeting with a judicial officer was supposed to take place in early February.
But when Holladay arrived, he was told that the software needed to crunch the numbers on his new claim was down. He would have to wait a while longer.
Holladay said he has heard similar stories from other noncustodial parents looking to reduce their payments under the new law almost a year after it was passed.
"They’re just putting off the inevitable," Holladay said. "People are resistant to change, and I think there’s a lot of ideology that exists in our system."
Some of those involved in the often emotional battles over child-support payments say it will take time to iron out the kinks in the system. But some noncustodial parents and their advocates say that months of training and preparing for the law should have left the system in better shape.
"I have not heard of one single father yet who’s got an adjustment," said Julie Batson, president of Georgians for Family Law/Child Support Reform, which pushed for the new standards.
What it does
Passed in the waning days of last year’s legislative session, the new law marked a major overhaul of the way Georgia calculates child-support payments.
Under the old law, the noncustodial parent would pay a set percentage of his or her income, usually between 17 percent and 23 percent. Those paying the support, often men, were upset that they were in some cases paying support to a spouse who might earn about the same or even more money.
The new system changes all that. It bases the payments on both parents’ incomes and the proportion of child-related expenses. The child-support award is based on tables, included in the law that was passed, that use a pair of formulas to estimate how much families of different income levels pay to raise their children.
The noncustodial parent then pays a share of that among based on how much of the family’s income comes from that parent’s earnings.
Parents could also get credit for covering expenses like health care or the cost of extracurricular activities at school.
"There’s a lot more that they take into account (than) what they did before," said Lisa Clarke, a family law attorney in Augusta.
In a concession to custodial parents, the law limited who could get revisions of child support awards that existed when the law was passed, so that simply trying to get a case heard because of the new guidelines isn’t enough.
"That doesn’t cut it," Clarke said. "You still have to meet certain requirements."
For the most part, there has to be a change in one parent’s income or a noncustodial parent has to use either more or less visitation time than provided for in the original court order for the case to be reviewed.
Even then, a judge can decide to phase-in the difference between the old and the new award if the change would be more than 15 percent.
All new cases are decided under the new law.
Getting the new system up and running has not been glitch-free and has, in some cases, caused frustration among parents and lawyers.
Clarke said she knows of lawyers that have stopped working on contested divorces because more information has to be gathered. And the parents involved in the cases sometimes don’t have all the information they need to start work on the child-support calculations with their lawyers – including, sometimes, how much their spouses make.
"If you don’t know, we can’t even begin to figure out" the payments, Clarke said.
Superior Court Judge Louisa Abbot, who serves on the state’s child support commission, said some judges, particularly those who weren’t comfortable with computers to begin with, have had some problems getting used to the new laws.
"It’s still fairly early, so obviously everybody’s going through a learning curve," she said.
And the number of uncontested divorces – where couples try to work out a settlement instead of having a judge figure things out – has tapered off slightly. That could mean it’s taking more time for lawyers and their clients to hammer out the details.
"You’ve got to gather more data and that’s just going to take longer," she said.
And some parents who choose to represent themselves, either because lawyers are sparse in their area or because they simply can’t afford to pay an attorney, often have trouble slogging through the paperwork required under the new standards.
"They don’t know what information they need to supply," Abbot said.
A new Internet program that would ask questions like some do-it-yourself income tax programs should be debuting soon, Abbot said, making it easier for people who aren’t attorneys to figure out their payments.
Abbot said she’s confident that judges, lawyers and parents will adjust.
"Obviously, the more you use it, the more you look at it … the better you get at it," she said.