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Committee gets feedback on child support rules

July 18, 2008

Creative suggestions came from a public hearing today about how to modify Indiana's child support rules and guidelines.

As it does every four years, the domestic relations committee of the Judicial Conference of Indiana is reviewing the guidelines and will propose changes to the Indiana Supreme Court. A public hearing this morning brought a handful of speakers with comments and criticisms about the current system and what can be done to make it better.

Those attending the hearing before the 10-person committee included attorneys, business people, government workers, people from volunteer organizations involved with child-support issues, and parents who've gone through the system themselves.

Robert Monday with the national Children's Rights Council had three suggestions: college support orders need to be clearer as far as the tax treatment for custodial parents, such as whether credits are being recognized and filtered down to child support guidelines; being able to pay for college expenses directly through the school, rather than through the custodial parents; and how to decide support relating to extracurricular activities, such as soccer or hockey expenses.

A parent, Donald Beatty from Wabash, said he wanted to see some change to allow both parents, not just one as currently happens, to claim health insurance premiums and receive credits.

Attorney Tom Frohman with Indiana Legal Services in Bloomington had written suggestions for the committee to consider and delved into his experience giving free legal help to low-income parents in 14 counties.

"The main thrust is that the problem isn't the guidelines, it's the application of those guidelines and the confusing inconsistencies," he said. "Most trial judges think the worksheet is the guidelines, not part of them or one tool to be used in the guidelines. Worksheets give a presumptive amount that should be ordered, but it's not the end of the story. Trial judges almost invariably stick to the worksheet of the guidelines to tell the whole story."

For example, the guidelines say that no minimum support order exists but they also note that judges can set a $25 to $50 a week range, he said. Frohman also noted that guidelines say a person paying support shouldn't be denied his own self-support, but other language says minimum wage should be applied if a person isn't working.

One committee member asked about having an income calculation worksheet for the judges to see to help draw out other information, such as rental expenses that can affect support payment.

The committee said it's been having significant discussions about an Indiana Supreme Court decision that came down last year involving child support rules. In Lambert v. Lambert, 861 N.E.2d 1176, 1177 (Ind. 2007), justices held that "incarceration does not relieve parents of their child support obligations," but that trial judges should not impute potential income to an imprisoned parent based on pre-incarceration wages or other employment-related income.

Changes likely will be made in the guidelines to reflect that holding, according to Steuben Superior Judge William Fee, who chairs the committee. He said the committee hopes to finish its review by the end of this year and make recommendations for the Indiana Supreme Court to consider in its rulemaking session next year.

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