Child Support From the Beginning
You may be a single mother expecting a child whose father has decided he may not want to be involved in your life or the child's life. Or maybe you're pregnant or already have children, and your marriage seems to be rocky. How do you lock in child support for the unborn baby? How quickly should you move to guarantee that your children get continued financial support from their father should he leave?
While the amount of child support you may receive and the collection methods vary by state, the first thing experts recommend is to act as soon as possible to avoid a gap in financial support that may not be recoverable.
Shelley Hayes, of North Carolina, did not see a lawyer about child support for her oldest child until he was 4 months old. She and the father had never been married. It was another six months before she got a court date. As is the custom with most courts, child support was ordered from the date of the filing, which meant not only that she went without support for almost a full year of her child's life, but also that the father was not liable for any of the medical bills related to the child's birth.
When she was pregnant with her second child, she had a very different experience. This time she was married to the father, but her marriage was in trouble. She decided to investigate her options early on.
"I hired a lawyer a month before the birth of my son, but the paperwork wasn't filed with the court system until he was 1 month old," says Hayes. "I received the first child support check on the day my son turned 7 months old."
While that check did not include the six months of prior child support her ex-husband had been ordered to pay or her legal fees, both expenses will eventually be paid, thanks to a court order.
Hayes' different experiences highlight what most experts say is the crucial factor in child support: getting legal advice as early as possible.
James J. Gross, managing partner at Thyden, Gross and Callahan in Chevy Chase, Md., and an expert in family law, suggests that getting a consultation as soon as possible is beneficial to both the child and the mother. "In Maryland, child support is only to be ordered by the court from the date the petition is filed, so if you wait too long your child isn't being supported by your spouse," says Gross. "In the case of a pregnant woman, she can file before the child is born and also get support for hospital bills."
Emotional vs. Legal
Much of the problems with late child support issues come from women who are worried that seeing a lawyer will make a relationship that is already rocky even worse. But Warren Hoffman, an attorney and expert on child support issues in New York, says that the courts are getting much better at separating the emotional from the financial.
"A breakup may be absolutely devastating to a family, and often it is, but the courts have to ignore the emotional side and just focus on the financial implications," says Hoffman. "They see it as the breakup of an economic partnership and you're compensated for your contribution by child support."
Furthermore, as Hoffman points out, early on in the breakup people tend to be a little more fair. Especially in the case of husbands and fathers, there is a guilt phase that keeps them willing to be involved. Then, the longer it takes, they become a little less involved, and their own expenses start coming up, and it becomes more of a battle.
Gross also notes that if a married woman is worried about seeing a lawyer because of the additional strain it may put on her marriage, then the simple answer is that her spouse doesn't need to know.
"There's always an emotional side and a legal side of divorce and what's important is to divide the emotional from the legal," says Gross. "For the legal issues go see a lawyer, and for the emotional issues you go to a marriage counselor. The lawyer can tell you what your options are – often they don't even charge for an initial consultation. Think of it as an educational process."
In Gross's opinion, most good family lawyers always discuss the possibility of counseling to try and reconcile rather than divorce. By the same token, Dr. Dorree Lynn, a marriage counselor and author of Getting Sane Without Going Crazy (Xlibris Corp., 2000), says that when a marriage appears to have irretrievably broken down, a good therapist will recommend that the couple get legal advice early on.
"Personally, I'm a big fan of mediation, because there's often an enormous amount of bitterness when people go to court," says Dr. Lynn. "But it's still important to see a lawyer so that you know your rights."The State You're In
The best news for single mothers is that laws governing child support are becoming more standardized and are placing less burden on the mother to collect payments.
Most states now have provisions in place for automatic garnishment of wages. In other words, rather than relying on the father to send a check every month, it is withheld directly from his earnings, much like income tax is withheld. It then goes to the state agency authorized to receive and disburse payments and they send it on to the mother.
In many other states, garnishment is only an option if the parent is in arrears or if the custodial parent can prove that collecting payments has become a burden. However, more and more states are taking the burden of collection off the mother so she doesn't have to deal with the constant strain of wondering if the check really is in the mail.
To find out what the laws are in your state, check out Child Support Collections.com which provides a comprehensive list of the laws in each state. Another site, Divorce Interactive, which is maintained by Carl Palatnik, host of the radio program, Divorce Talk, has a lot of good information on other divorce issues.