Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2009


Current child support laws are based on flawed assumptions about families that fail to reflect family complexity and the realities of parenting. Further, there has been little reevaluation of the stated goals of child support law since they were first implemented thirty years ago. The stated goals — fiscal savings, children’s economic well-being, and parental involvement — have not been achieved and are increasingly unlikely to be achieved because they ignore the way that children in multiple families — families in which at least one parent has had another child with a different partner —compete for the limited resources of their parents. Consequently, federal child support laws fail to meet their self-described goals, and fail particularly acutely for poor families. Because of this fundamental disconnect between child support laws and the realities of parenting, child support policy should be reenvisioned and a new theory of child support should be implemented.

This Article proposes a new theory of child support, limited equalization, which makes an explicit policy choice in favor of existing families. The two primary ways to allocate child support among families are “first family first” or “equalization.” In “first family first” policy, the first family receives an award that is not reduced when new children are born. The second way to allocate child support among families is through “equalization” policy, which calls for “equal treatment” of all the children of a particular parent. This Article argues that the federal government should provide instructions on balancing these competing interests to ensure uniform policy goals and more consistent application of child support laws.

This Article also examines who should bear the cost of a parent’s decision to have more children, particularly where there are limited resources, and develops a new theory of child support, limited equalization. Motivated by the current failures of federal involvement in child support, limited equalization gives states explicit guidance in developing child support guidelines while reenvisioning the focal points of child support policy. Limited equalization recognizes modern demographics of families and expands upon the limited doctrines of duty of support and parenthood. It addresses the needs of children in low-income and multiple families and provides a mechanism to realistically account for families’ situations in calculating child support awards. When a choice must be made among multiple families, limited equalization favors first families because of the harmful effects of a reduction in child support.

Against the backdrop of these goals, limited equalization has five points of focus for child support: (1) making an explicit policy choice about supporting multiple families, with a preference for existing families; (2) recognizing the demographics of the families that need child support; (3) expanding the definition of parenting and the duty of support; (4) increasing attention to poverty prevention; and (5) increasing attention to gender equality.

Part I of this Article explains the importance of federal child support laws and their failure to account for modern demographics, Part II reviews the existing federal child support laws, Part III identifies the explicit goals of federal child support law, Part IV critiques the goals of federal child support law, and Part V examines issues of family complexity in state child support guidelines. Finally, Part VI identifies key issues in forming and implementing limited equalization as a new theory of child support.

Included in

Family Law Commons



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