Who knows someone paying child support to a relatively rich parent?


The movie Divorce Corp. comes out on Friday, so it seems like a good time to update the material that I gathered previously on the subject (e.g., this posting on Denmark’s laws and customs).

I’m looking for people to interview and asking my readers to help.

I know a woman in one of the “winner-take-all” states of the Northeast where it is typical for a female plaintiff in a no-fault divorce lawsuit to get the house, the children, and the cash (the trifecta that this academic study says is ideal for motivating plaintiffs). In this case, the mom pulled the plug on her brief marriage when her daughter was three years old, spiriting away the child and presenting the father with the fait accompli that he was now a sperm donor who owed her about $10,000 per year. In the sixteen years since this happened I have listened to the mother complain about the father’s inadequancy. Aside from paying her $10,000 tax-free dollars per year, in the plaintiff-mother’s mind the defendant-father was supposed to be a “secondary parent” to this child, taking care of her one day per week and doing some driving to get her back and forth to her mom’s house. To the mother’s dismay he was doing a crummy job as a secondary parent. He would fail to pick her up or drop her off on time or sometimes refuse to drive at all. I had confidently marked him down in my ledger of truly inferior human beings, but recently the mom added “But he is such a great father to the three kids from his new marriage. I don’t understand why he doesn’t take an interest in my daughter.”

The germ of an idea began to form in my head… the daughter has been a perfectly nice child at all times. Maybe the difference in this guy’s behavior was not a function of the daughter’s personality but of the mother’s attitude and the fact that he is paying the mother to be the parent. The guy had voluntarily signed up to cooperate with the mother in marriage, but his role was terminated involuntarily by the wife’s divorce lawsuit. The guy had voluntarily signed up to cooperate with the second wife in marriage and child-rearing and has continued voluntarily and effectively in that role. Let’s take it as a given that he is a terrible secondary parent/check-writer, but perhaps that is because nobody ever asked him if he wanted the job.

The theory behind child support is that, when the custodial parent does not have a job, it saves children from poverty. In the case of this child, however, both parents are remarried and both have comfortable household incomes and lifestyles. The $10,000 per year money flow did not have any effect on the child’s standard of living but I am now wondering if it deprived her of an involved father.

Suppose that the mother had said “I don’t need any money from you but I would like your cooperation in rearing this child so would you please let me know what you can do for her and how much time you can invest in her”? Would that have changed this guy’s attitude and behavior so that he ended up treating the child from his first marriage more like he treated the children from his second marriage? From the guy’s perspective, did paying someone to do the chores of parenting (e.g., driving) make him resentful if he ever had to do anything less than fun with this daughter?

I don’t have any way of contacting this guy to get his side of the story so I am appealing to readers. Do you know people in a similar situation that I could interview (I will keep the interviewees anonymous)? Here are the requirements:

  • was sued for divorce after a short marriage and with a young child
  • divorce plaintiff sought “sole” or “primary” custody of the child
  • lived in a state where 50/50 parenting was unobtainable (at least at the time) from the courts as a practical matter (so the defendant never had an opportunity to serve in an equal parental role)
  • has paid child support for 10+ years
  • is paying the child support to a person who would have a comfortable lifestyle regardless (let’s say at least 2X the state’s average family income)

In most jurisdictions it is possible for a parent who obtains custody to collect child support, no matter how rich the plaintiff. A plaintiff/victorious investment banker earning $5 million per year who obtained two-thirds custody could collect additional tax-free money every month from the defendant/defeated parent. Why would legislators and judges set things up this way? It would make perfect sense if it turns out to be true that ordering Parent A to write a check every month to Parent B won’t have any effect on how Parent A feels about investing time and energy in the child.  So the interview questions are to explore whether or not this is true, e.g.,

  • Honestly, has the fact that you are sending checks every month to someone who doesn’t need them compromised your performance as a parent?
  • Does the fact that you have to pay for your child’s expenses while at the other parent’s house as well as provide a dedicated room in your own house or apartment bother you? (this economic review in Massachusetts pointed out that the payor who has a child one third time ends up paying the same expenses twice, once in the child support recipient’s home and once in his or her own)
  • Does paying the other parent every month make you more likely to skip out on the unpleasant and/or boring parts of being a parent?
  • Does paying the other parent every month lead to you treating the child of your first marriage differently than any subsequent children?
  • Does paying the other parent every month make it harder to cooperate with that parent?

Identities will be kept in strict confidence.



  1. Parno

    January 9, 2014 @ 8:26 pm


    Start with this paper on market vs. non-market norms: http://management.ucsd.edu/faculty/directory/gneezy/pub/docs/fine.pdf

  2. anon

    January 9, 2014 @ 9:04 pm


    I don’t meet the requirements. I do pay around $15000/yr in child support to the mother of my son. We were together for a very short time but never married. The money has no bearing on my desire to spend time with my son.

    I suggest looking at the contentious nature of divorce/break-up/separation and then co-parenting afterwards. As you’ve mentioned, you’re only hearing her side of the story. The father may consider himself a great parent.

    I’ve re-scheduled a visit twice in 8 years. The last time we went to mediation, she accused me of always cancelling and re-scheduling. She really believed it and she is a very intelligent and rational person. I’ve made similar unfounded accusations. What I’ve found for both of us is that the strong emotions surrounding the situation tend to cloud the facts.

  3. Mark

    January 12, 2014 @ 4:39 am


    It seems to me that the man you describe in your post, who pays 10K per year but makes a “comfortable living”, is getting off easy. That averages a little more than $800 per month, so surely if this guy is a decent person he should not hold it against the child what he pays his ex each month for his portion of support. Particularly when it is such a paltry amount. And reading your account, he definitely seems to be taking his duties lightly.
    Maybe he thinks its a little jab at his ex-wife when he shows up late, but in the end it s his quality time with his own flesh and blood that gets diminished.
    I think there are many variables that cause a parent who is on the losing end of a divorce to take less of an interest in the child. The real question is why an adult would do stuff that resulted in he or she taking their aggravation (over support payments and a divorce they didn’t want) out on their child, ultimately.

  4. philg

    January 12, 2014 @ 10:36 am


    Mark: You’re conjecturing that this guy feels the way that the divorce industry assumes he will feel. But that is the very question I am posing. I don’t know that there is good evidence for that assumption.

    You say it is “his portion of support”. What if he believes that, since both families have ample household income, a fair arrangement would be that each household takes care of whatever children happen to be in that household at any given time? Or perhaps he believes that he should only have to pay the mother for her effort if he was first offered the chance to put in the time and effort on a 50/50 basis but refused to do so? There is no way to know without asking/interviewing him. (Hence my original posting, which was designed to find interviewees, not to solicit opinions about how the interviewees are supposed to feel.)

    At the time that this guy was sued, his state had a combination of (1) no-fault divorce, (2) mother can expect to win sole physical custody, reducing the father to a visitor, and (3) parent who wins child can get tax-free child support cash, regardless of victorious parent’s income (I think it is the same now except that the language has changed, so the mother becomes the “primary parent” and the father becomes the “secondary parent”). So he was guaranteed to lose the lawsuit and guaranteed to lose his role as a parent. Although this has been the prevailing system in some states for 20-30 years, that’s little more than an eyeblink when you consider the span of Western Civilization. So we don’t have a lot of data as to how fathers’ behavior changes in response. We know that they can be made to pay money in response to court orders. We don’t know what is going on inside their heads. (And our data set is shrinking as various states and countries reconsider the wisdom of more or less automatically granting sole custody to one parent.)

    A thought experiment: If you took this guy’s dog via a court proceeding under which you were guaranteed to be able to get the dog 6 nights out of 7 and then said “I need you to pay me $10,000 per year to fulfill your obligation to the dog that used to be yours” he might respond “Why did you take my dog if you couldn’t afford to feed him?”

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