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Monday, July 14, 2008

Laws may up child support

New child support laws passed this year by the Louisiana Legislature could mean an increase in the financial commitment paying parents make to their children.
State lawmakers debated more than a dozen bills relating to the management of children after their parents break up. Nine were approved by the legislators and ended up on the governor’s desk.
“Child support has a very significant impact on people today,” Robbie Endris, executive director of the Department of Social Services’ Support Enforcement Services Division.
It is typical during a nonfiscal regular session, which is every other year, for lawmakers to push a number of changes to the laws governing child support, she said.
One of the bills that made it into law allows judges to add special expenses for camps, music lessons and sports to child-support obligations.
Tamithia Shaw, co-chair of the child-support guidelines review committee, which recommended the legislation as part of its quadrennial report this year, said her committee found that after a divorce, the noncustodial parent is less willing to pay for activities.
Judges already had the discretion to add support for extra activities, but they felt reluctant to do so, she said.
“They didn’t feel they had the right to add that,” Shaw said.
“We’re really trying to address those situations where they refuse to pay anything,” said state Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie and sponsor of House Bill 339.
As it was being considered in the Legislature, some senators argued the bill could create an excessive financial burden on those paying child support.
Lopinto said judges still get discretion in determining what a reasonable request is to provide support.
HB339 also gives the court the option, in cases where the monthly income of the parent exceeds $30,000, to place a portion of the obligation in a trust for the child.
Lopinto said some people, like professional athletes, get large incomes for a short amount of time. When they no longer have that income, their child support obligation drops, he said.
During the time they are making income that exceeds the child support schedule, judges can put the money in a trust for the child, he said.
“It just provides a little safety net now for the child,” Endris said.
The child-support schedule, which is used to determine how much a parent will pay based on their income, was expanded by another measure signed into law to include monthly combined income between $20,000 of $30,000. It also updated the payment amounts for monthly incomes starting at $2,250.
Shaw said the current schedule was based on economic data from 1972.
Judges were allowed to use their discretion to set child support payments for incomes that exceeded the schedule, but the law now allows for greater consistency, Shaw said.
One Senate bill held up in committee would have allowed for adjustments to child support payments for parents with children in more than one family. The measure was not part of the Department of Social Service’s agenda but was recommended by the Louisiana State Law Institute.
State Sen. Derrick Shepherd, D-Marrero, sponsor of Senate Bill 605, said the measure is needed to eliminate the “race to the courthouse” that current law allows.
For example, a man has children with two women. Whichever mother files for child support first, the court uses the father’s income at that point to calculate the child support payment.
Then, if the other mother files for child support, the father’s now-diminished income will be used to calculate that child support payment.
So, whoever files for child support first gets the largest payment, Shepherd said.
One measure that attracted attention but failed to pass was House Bill 341 by state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville. The measure would have clarified how to determine income for parents who are self-employed.
“Not every person who is self-employed is trying to conceal income,” Shaw said. “But when you do have someone conceal, it’s usually in those cases.”
HB341 as it was originally written was not controversial, having not received a single “no” vote. But a hot button amendment was tacked on HB341 late in the session and the measure died.

The controversial amendment started out as Senate Bill 110, which passed the Senate but was voted down by a House committee on May 28. The bill’s wording was then tacked onto HB341.
The amendment would have allowed the state Department of Social Services to seize casino winnings to pay past-due child support.
Endris said this is the third time the Legislature has considered some type of gambling interception bill. More states are passing similar bills, and it’s something the federal government is considering too, she said.
“It will certainly be coming back again,” Endris said. “If the parent’s a winner, the children should be winners, too.”

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