A year ago you had a four-bedroom house and could think about making a purchase without much angst. Now you and your kids are dependent on food stamps and you aren't sure how you will pay your rent. This isn't necessarily a result of the economy, but of divorce and the havoc it causes for many women's finances.
Although states have many more tools in their arsenals to help collect child support today, there are still too many ways for fathers (or mothers, in some cases) to get out of paying the full amount they owe.
Nancy Alves of Chicago has lived this experience firsthand.
A stay-at-home mom with a son, Alves soon realized Illinois' Child Support Services were of little help. For one thing, her ex-husband is self-employed. Although the courts awarded her child support, collection has been much more difficult since his wages cannot be deducted automatically from his paycheck. As a result, Alves has fallen behind on her rent and wonders how she and her son will get by.
The numbers tell a similar story.
According to the federal government's Office of Child Support Enforcement, Illinois collected more than $800 million in 2010, a slight rise over the previous year. But beneath this number is another statistic: Illinois custodial parents are still owed almost $3 billion (yes, billion) in back child support.
This affects many Illinois families. Nationally only 47 percent of custodial parents who are owed child support receive the full amount awarded, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With a caseload exceeding a half million families in this state, it is likely that thousands of Illinois children are falling into poverty in the wake of divorce.
Additionally, unless both parties to a divorce have equal incomes, it is very likely the custodial parent (usually the mother and in many cases the lower earner) will find their standard of living diminished even with child support-and their kids will feel it.
Getting the correct award judgment
"Illinois is not typical in the way we compute child support," says Oak Brook family law attorney and mediator Margaret Bennett. "We're one of seven or eight states using percentage guidelines. The most important thing someone should do is to make sure they are receiving child support based upon all of the non-custodial parents' income-that includes bonuses and commissions."
In Illinois, the statutory guidelines start at 20 percent of net income for one child, 28 percent for two, 32 percent for three and up to a maximum of 50 percent for six or more children. But these are only guidelines, cautions Chicago divorce and family law attorney Jay A. Frank. Judges can deviate from these if they choose, especially when the income is above $250,000.
But showing evidence of all income is not always clear cut. If a spouse has regularly made money on cash side jobs, a court can include that money, but only if there is evidence of that income, such as on past years' tax returns, says Park Ridge attorney Deborah J. FioRito, who concentrates in domestic relations and high conflict litigation.
"It presumes you have a pretty upstanding husband," adds Frank.
There are additional pitfalls, FioRito says. What if the custodial parent buys the other's share in the house under the presumption that he or she will get child support to keep up the mortgage, but then doesn't receive the child support?
Getting the money-in full and on time
The key to getting child support regularly and on time is having an ex-spouse with W-2s.
More than two-thirds of the child support collected comes through income withholding, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. Without a method to automatically collect, it is too easy for many non-custodial parents to pay none or make only partial payments of child support.
Still, there are ways to get at least some of the money owed.
One way is for the Illinois Child Support Enforcement Office to intercept state and federal tax refund checks to help pay delinquent child support. This method helped Alves get at least some of the money she was owed from her self-employed ex-husband.
The state also can withhold unemployment benefits for child support owed, as well as place liens on property and freeze accounts if need be. They also have access to some additional penalties for those who are delinquent beyond 90 days, including suspension of driver's license, professional license, recreational license or U.S. passport. If all else fails, the state also can imprison a delinquent parent for up to six months with time off to go to work.
Yet with all these sticks, a significant portion of child support is still not being paid-some because the non-custodial parent can't be found or claims to have no money, and others because those seeking child support just give up out of frustration.
"The remedies-even those that are effective-take time," Frank says.
Navigating the system
Although the courts will consider contribution to legal fees as part of the divorce settlement, this does not solve the problem of paying the attorney's fees to begin the process.
If you are getting a divorce, you have to budget for moving out, buying one person out of the house and purchasing professional services, says Chicago family law attorney Audrey L. Gaynor.
She adds that clients who are not the primary earners often think they don't have money, but they actually do if they have their name on an investment account or life insurance policy. These are assets that can be used to pay the initial fees to retain an attorney.
For those that do not have these kinds of assets, most attorneys will take credit cards, and many people borrow money from friends and family, she says.
Another option is to turn the case over to the Illinois Child Support Enforcement Office.
Whatever option someone picks, seeking child support through legal means isn't easy or cheap. But the other option-giving up and not seeking child support-can have disastrous effects.
Jeanne Marie Dauray of Round Lake is an adult now, but as a child suffered financially (as well as emotionally) from a deadbeat dad. Although both her parents were professionals, the lack of child support and loss of half the household income was "absolutely life destroying," she says.
"We had no savings, didn't own a house and I had not finished college" due to the financial hardship, she says. Eventually, Dauray was able to complete her bachelor's degree, but only after finally taking her father to court and winning a settlement.
Merry Mayer is a freelance writer living in Chicago.