A recent study indicates that Alaska has made significant progress in standardizing child support orders under Court Rule 90.3, but that proportional disparities in awards exist when examined by community, type of case and type of establishment procedure. The following article presents the results of the study Child Support in Alaska: An Examination of the Effectiveness and Impact of Alaska's Child Support Guidelines, which was conducted under contract with the Alaska Women's Commission and the Child Support Enforcement Division of the Alaska Department of Revenue.
In the last decade, issues of child support adequacy and fairness have become subject to debate and reform. The determination of parental financial obligations after divorce was long the responsibility of the state judiciary, with a reliance on a case by case method of calculating dollar amounts. Critics charged that the courts treated divorcing parties inequitably, that adjudication produced inadequate awards, and that the process was generally inefficient.
In response to public pressure for reform, the U.S. Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 (CSEA). This legislation required states to develop non-binding guidelines for use by judges in setting child support amounts. It did not mandate how the guidelines were to be used-as mandatory or as advisory-but just that they be formulated. Four years later, when Congress passed the Family Support Act of 1988 (FSA), issues of child support adequacy and nonpayment had become closely tied to "welfare reform." Low award amounts and the failure to pay full or partial support by many obligors resulted in huge costs to the nation's welfare system, and the child support amendments to the Family Support Act were aimed at strengthening state child support enforcement efforts. Along with other requirements, the FSA specified that the use of guidelines be mandatory unless there existed a written finding that such use would be unjust or inappropriate.
Alaska responded to the CSEA by establishing the Alaska Child Support Guidelines Commission in October 1985. The commission made extensive recommendations on the structuring of Alaska's support guidelines, advocated a "percentage of income" approach to support calculations, and recommended the percentages to be used in making those calculations. These recommendations served as the basis for Civil Rule 90.3 of the Alaska Civil Rules of Procedure, "Child Support Awards," which was adopted by the Alaska Supreme Court and became effective in August 1987.
Under Rule 90.3, in cases of sole or primary physical custody, the annual financial obligation of the noncustodial parent is equal to the product of that parent's adjusted annual income (up to $60,000) and .20 for a single child, .27 for two children, .33 for three children, and an extra .03 for each additional child. Regardless of income, under Rule 90.3 the noncustodial parent must pay a minimum amount of $50.00 per month.
In cases in which the physical custody of children is shared, the rule requires that a modified formula be used to calculate the gross obligation each parent has toward the support of his/her child(ren).
In a similar manner, Rule 90.3 provides for adjustments in payments during periods of extended visitation and for a variety of other compelling reasons, including obligor impoverishment, large families, income of children, and extraordinary expenses.
The Alaska Study
The study sampled divorce, dissolution and other domestic relation cases filed during 1989 in Superior Courts in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Bethel, and Nome. Only those cases which involved the custody of children and those cases finalized by the courts at the time of data collection were included in the study. The term "sample" is used figuratively because in Juneau, Bethel and Nome, all such cases were included in the study. For Fairbanks, between 25 and 35 per cent of all cases, depending upon case type, were sampled for inclusion, and for Anchorage the figure was between 17 and 30 per cent. Four hundred thirty-five (435) court cases served as the primary database for the report (Table 1). The final distribution of court cases, by community of origin and by case type, was weighted in order to produce a "statewide" picture of court cases involving child support (Figure 1).
To facilitate a comparison between judicially established support orders and administratively established orders, 171 Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) administrative cases were also included for analysis. Administrative establishment procedures are initiated by CSED when child support is due the obligee but has not been established judicially through a divorce, dissolution, or other domestic relation case. The agency is also charged with the determination of paternity of children born out of wedlock when support owed for a child. Seventy-five of the administrative cases involved the establishment of paternity; the remaining did not. Because Rule 90.3 applies to judicially and administratively established child support orders, questions about discrepancy or continuity in the establishment process were entertained.
To determine award amounts, Rule 90.3 requires the submission of a detailed income affidavit which covers various sources of income, specific deductions and allows for forward calculation of each parent's financial obligation. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of court cases did not contain income affidavits of any type. The extent of missing financial data varied by location and type of case, but, statewide, was greater for maternal income (32%) than for paternal income (26%). Because of the importance of income data in setting child support orders, it was significant that large numbers of cases were missing a financial affidavit for one or both parties.
Data from the court cases were analyzed by location for Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Bethel and Nome, as well as together for a "statewide" portrait (Table 2). The administratively established cases were examined as two groups-paternity or nonpaternity-depending primarily upon whether the parents of the children were ever married. In administrative cases, the establishment of paternity (if necessary) is often the first step in the process of establishing child support. Paternity may or may not be contested. This study also examined court cases based on whether the case involved a recipient of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and whether the case was administered by the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED).
General Characteristics of Study Sample
- Mothers received physical custody of children in 71 per cent of court cases, fathers in 15 per cent. Physical custody was shared or split in 11 per cent.
- Interim custody orders were entered in 8 per cent of cases.
- Statewide, fathers were named the support obligor in 81 per cent of cases, mothers in 18 per cent.
- The support of one child was involved in 55 per cent of court cases statewide, two children in 32 per cent, and three children in 10 per cent. One case involved the support of eight children, while several cases involved the support of an unborn child of the marriage.
- Final visitation arrangements for the noncustodial parent were "reasonable" or "liberal" in 60 per cent of cases, and were restricted to a schedule in 16 per cent. Agreements for visitation with the noncustodial parent for an extended period were made in 11 per cent of the court cases. In 1 per cent of cases, supervised visitation was ordered or the court required that the parent not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of visitation.
- One-quarter of child support orders in the court cases contained a provision for an automatic cost-of-living increase.
- The obligor parent was ordered to maintain medical insurance for children in 38 per cent of court cases. Approximately 15 per cent of custodial parents were ordered to provide medical insurance coverage.
- Medical coverage was conditionally ordered of the obligor parent in an additional 26 per cent of cases. In most of these cases insurance was ordered to be paid if a policy was made available to the parent at a reasonable cost.
- Future court reviews were ordered in 5 per cent of the court cases.
- Spousal maintenance was ordered in 7 per cent of cases. These cases were characterized by higher obligor income levels and longer marriages, and most were divorce, rather than dissolution, cases. The median amount of these orders was $300 per month, most of which extended for a duration of one year.
- In the court divorce cases, the mother was represented by an attorney in 87 per cent of cases, the father in 66 per cent.
Income, Income Differences and 90.3 Applications
- In calculating net incomes, fathers were more likely than mothers to declare allowable income deductions. Only on the expense of work-related childcare did the number of deductions by mothers exceed those of fathers.
- Statewide, the average annual net income of fathers was $22,818, with a high average figure of $25,181 in Nome and Bethel cases and a low of $20,369 in Fairbanks.
- The average statewide net income of mothers was $13,588-a figure that was 60 per cent of the average net paternal income. The average net income of mothers was lowest in Nome and Bethel, at $11,606, and highest in Anchorage, at $13,927.
- The ratio of mother-to-father net incomes was lowest in Bethel and Nome cases, where the incomes of mothers averaged 46 per cent of the fathers'. In Fairbanks, this ratio was highest, at 67 per cent.
- For court cases involving the support of one child, the statewide average obligor net income was $17,520 and the average monthly support order was $286, or 20 per cent of the net income-exactly what Rule 90.3 requires.
- Support awards varied by type of legal procedure. In cases involving one child, for example, the average obligor income in a dissolution cases was $14,472 and the average monthly award was $258, or 21 per cent of obligor income. The average obligor income in a divorce procedure with one child was $24,166, and the average award was $341, or 17 per cent of obligor income.
- Administratively established awards revealed precise application of the guidelines: 20 per cent of obligor net income in cases with one child, 27 per cent with two children, and 33 per cent with three children.
- The disparity between establishment procedures persisted in cases involving more children. Awards in court cases involving two children averaged 24 per cent of obligor net income; with three children, the awards in court cases averaged 30 per cent of obligor income. Both of these figures fall below the 90.3 guidelines.
- The percentages of obligor net income ordered in child support also varied considerably among the study locations: in Anchorage court cases, the average award involving the support of one child was 21 per cent of obligor income; in Fairbanks the proportion was 17 per cent; in Juneau, 19 per cent; and in Nome and Bethel, 14 per cent.
AFDC Cases and CSED Cases
- The average child support court order in cases involving a recipient of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was 28 per cent lower than the average award in non-AFDC court cases. This disparity, however, was income based, with the income of AFDC families being substantially lower.
- In 35 per cent of the court cases, child support was to be paid through CSED. In the judicially established cases, there was no significant difference in support orders between cases administered by CSED and those cases not handled by the agency.
Indicators of the Economic Impact of Divorce
In calculating the post-divorce finances of families, the study assumed that child support would be paid by the obligor and received by the custodial parent. Current information on support arrearages from CSED indicates that there are large numbers of support obligors in Alaska who do not make full payment on their monthly child support obligation. This nonpayment or underpayment, in turn, affects the custodial family's financial well-being. Nevertheless, the income and support data from court cases were examined as indicators of the post-divorce financial health of families.
- In cases in which the mother was awarded physical custody, her family's per capita income declined an average 28 per cent from its pre-divorce level. This decline generally took place even when full payment of support was assumed and was due to the consistently higher earnings of the father which, after divorce, were no longer at the disposal of the custodial family. The average decline in custodial family income would be greater if nonpayment was considered. In contrast, the post-divorce per capita income of the noncustodial parent-the father in these cases-increased an average 54 per cent.
- In court cases in which fathers were awarded physical custody, the post-divorce custodial family per capita income remained relatively unchanged, increasing an average of 1 per cent. Yet the noncustodial mother still experienced an average 11 per cent decline in her per capita income.
Exceptions to 90.3
- In approximately 10 per cent of the court cases, reductions in monthly child support orders were made for long visitations.
- Exceptions to the 90.3 guidelines were made in 22 per cent of the court cases. The most common exceptions related to obligor impoverishment and shared physical custody of children.
Comparison with Previous Studies
In a study of 1988 child support cases administered by the Alaska Child Support Enforcement Agency (CSED), Ginny Fay reported that with one child an average 17 per cent of obligor net income was ordered for support (Fay, Economic Impact of Alaska's Child Support Court Rule 90.3 on Family Income, Alaska State Legislature, Legislative Research Agency, May 1, 1990. In this study, the judicial support orders found in 1988 CSED cases were analyzed.) The current court case data show a statewide figure of 20 per cent. For two children the earlier study showed an average 22 per cent of obligor income was ordered in support; the 1989 court data show a figure of 24 per cent. And in cases with three children the 1988 study found an average 19 per cent of obligor net income was ordered in support; the newer court data show an average of 30 per cent. While the data in the current study are not directly comparable to those in the earlier study, it is notable that the 1989 data show consistent increases in proportions of obligor income ordered in support.
Comparison of the current data to a 1987 Alaska Women's Commission Study which examined pre-guideline support orders shows large increases in support amounts (Baker, Family Equity at Issue: A Study of the Economic Consequences of Divorce on Women and Children, Alaska Women's Commission, October 1987). Adjusted for inflation, the average 1985 child support order was approximately half the amount of the current post-guideline order. A central purpose of this study was to offer an assessment of the degree to which Rule 90.3 has been implemented in Alaska. Overall, average child support awards have increased; yet despite these gains, custodial families-largely headed by women with lower earnings?continue to experience decreases in their per capita financial resources. The disparities between male and female earning capacities, however, are not the focus of support reform, and do not fall within the domain of guideline remedy.
Comparison of support awards across community, type of case, and establishment procedure shows proportional disparities exist. One of the central purposes of guidelines such as Civil Rule 90.3 is to minimize these disparities. In Alaska, support obligations established within the administrative process of CSED generally reflect a rigorous application of the guidelines; in these cases average awards exactly replicate the guideline proportions. The awards in court cases reflect a more lenient series of applications that produce average obligations below the proportions mandated in Rule 90.3. Yet even if Alaska has not achieved complete implementation of the support guidelines, the new data evidence significant progress.
A fuller exploration of the study summarized in this article can be found in Child Support in Alaska: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Impact of Alaska's Child Support Guidelines. Copies of the study are available through the Child Support Enforcement Division, Department of Revenue.
Emily Read is a research associate with the Justice Center. Ginny Fay is an economics consultant based in Juneau.