Abstract: What Do We Expect in Shared Custody Child Support Cases: Contrasting Responses in 12 Countries and 5 US States (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

What Do We Expect in Shared Custody Child Support Cases: Contrasting Responses in 12 Countries and 5 US States

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Mia Hakovirta, PhD, Academic Researcher, University of Turku, Finland
Daniel Meyer, PhD, Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin - Madison, WI
Christine Skinner, PhD, Professor, University of York, United Kingdom
Shared custody, in which children of separated parents spend roughly equal amounts of time with each parent, has been increasing in many countries (Smyth, 2017).  Indeed, court data show it is now the most common arrangement for children after divorce in Wisconsin (Cancian et al., 2014).  Despite its increasing popularity, little is known about the family policy responses to this arrangement in various countries.  One critical area is child support policy.  In this paper, we examine whether countries require child support even if a parent provides substantial care for the child, and how any expected amount compares to what is expected when children primarily live with one parent.

Method: We use descriptive methods on data collected from expert informants in 12 countries.  The experts provided information on policy responses to different types of contemporary family situations; we supplement these data with information from five US states drawn from public sources. Within each country (and state) we first calculate the amount of child support that would be expected in a model family (sex-specific median earnings, two children) if the children primarily lived with one parent. We then contrast this amount with the expectation if the children spend equal time with each parent (shared time case).  The paper then discusses the results in light of typologies of welfare states and expectations about gender roles across countries.

Results: there are dramatically different expectations across countries for the child support amount in the typical case, and expectations are higher in the US states examined than all comparison countries. For example, in California, Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, amounts expected are all about $400/month/child or more). Only in Estonia and Spain are the expectations this high in the comparison countries. In the next set of countries -- New Zealand, Norway, UK, Finland, and Iceland -- amounts are between $200 and $250/month/child, and expectations are even lower in Australia, Denmark, Belgium, France, and Sweden.  In the equal-time scenario, amounts are much lower in the states examined here and in most countries. However, in Estonia and Iceland, the obligation does not change, and in Belgium and Finland, the obligation falls but is still more than half the original level.   

Conclusions: We explore reasons for these divergent results, examining whether expectations in the typical case and in the shared-time case are related to other features of the family support policy system.  Preliminary conclusions are that the level of child support expected in the typical case is related to the generosity of state benefits: countries that provide less generous government benefits to families tend to require more child support from parents.  However, the decline in expectations when there is roughly equal custody is not related to generosity, but seems related to whether fathers are seen as breadwinners or both parents seen as dual earners/dual carers.  The variety of approaches to child support in these cases highlights ways in which the family policy systems in some countries are responding to new family forms.