Child Support in Shared Care Cases: Do Child Support Policies Reflect Family Policy Models?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Mia Hakovirta, Daniel Meyer and Christine Skinner. Click here to access the article.

Increasingly, parents in separated families equally share the care of their children post-separation. Recent estimates of shared care are around 35 per cent of divorcing parents, for instance in Belgium, Sweden, and the U.S. state of Wisconsin.

Despite the increase in shared care, questions arise as to how well family policy and child support systems are reacting to such social change? Are there any signs that child support systems are adapting to alterations in care patterns that suggest greater gender equality in care time in post separation families? Do child support policies reflect family policy models? We answered these questions our recent article. We extended a well-known family policy model to generate hypotheses about the level of child support to be paid by separated parents when children live primarily with their mother (‘sole custody’) in contrast to when children spend equal time with both parents (‘shared care’) and tested these hypotheses with expert informant data collected from 13 countries.

Family policy models and child support expectations

Drawing from the family policy models of Korpi and colleagues, we incorporated expectations about the level of child support in two family types: (i) when children live with mothers and (ii) when parents share care and tested this empirically. We included 13 countries. We considered Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as representatives of earner carer family policy model. Belgium, Estonia, France and Spain are traditional family policy countries. Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US represent market orientated family policy countries.  

First, the amount expected in a typical case in which children live with their mothers varies across family policy models. We anticipate that in the earner-carer countries substantial child support for single parents is not needed because both parents are expected to be earners. Moreover, governmental family benefits provide single parents with relatively generous resources, making support from the other parent less necessary.

In traditional family support countries, mothers’ employment rates are relatively low, and to relieve poverty, child support payments are needed, so we expect high orders. The market-oriented countries generally have low levels of public support for children; as a result private child support may be particularly important post-separation.

Thus, our first hypothesis was: ‘if the mother is the primary carer and has sole custody, countries with an earner-carer model will have lower child support expectations than countries with either a traditional family policy model or a market-oriented model’. The data clearly supported our hypotheses for the sole custody case: countries with an earner-carer family policy model have lower child support orders than countries with a traditional family model or a market-oriented model. The five countries with the earner-carer model have the lowest average monthly order, $197, compared to $326 for the traditional family policy model and $274 for the market-oriented model. However, within the traditional family policy model and the market-oriented model there is substantial variation between countries; in contrast, the earner-carer countries have similar expectations.

Second, for shared care cases, we anticipated that expectations for child support may differ in a separated family if both parents have equal caring responsibilities. In earner-carer countries, equal caring responsibilities between parents combined with equal earning responsibilities mean there need not be financial transfers. In traditional family countries, we anticipate that even in the shared care case, a father will be expected to provide some child support because he still seen as a breadwinner.  In market-oriented countries, the shared-care case expectations may vary by income: it may be high in low-income cases given the lack of other supports for families, and it may be low for moderate-income cases given the general preference for non-governmental intervention when perceived not to be ‘needed.’ Consequently, we anticipate low orders, since there will be less need for government intervention when families have typical incomes. Thus, our second hypothesis was: ‘if both parents have median incomes and share care equally, countries with a traditional family model will have higher orders than in either the earner-carer or the market-oriented countries’

Results showed that our hypotheses about shared care were also generally supported. Earner-carer countries (averaging $74)  and market-oriented countries do have substantially lower orders in shared care than in sole custody cases, and these orders are lower on average than in countries with traditional family models. Denmark, Norway, and Sweden follow the prediction, as their orders are set to zero or to a very low amount. However, the two other earner-carer countries do not follow predictions. Iceland has no adaptation for the shared care situation and in Finland there is only a small reduction. 

Orders also declined substantially in the traditional family countries, averaging $125 in shared care case. Only Estonia followed the prediction of relatively high orders that were not reduced substantially for shared care. In the market-oriented countries, an average order was $47. Only the U.S. fit the ideal type, with high orders in the sole-custody case that are substantially reduced. The other countries did reduce orders (or annul them) in the shared care case, as expected, but their orders in the sole-custody case are also lower than anticipated.

Our main conclusion is that many family policy models are built around the gender roles expected when parents live together and child support policy will not fit these models well if different gender expectations emerge when parents separate. While the general predictions for the family policy models hold overall, the family policy typology does not adequately predict child support orders. We suggest that a new analytic frameworks for considering child support in family policy need to be developed. 

About the author

Mia Hakovirta is Senior Research Fellow at Invest Flagship, University of Turku

Daniel R. Meyer is Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin Madison, US

Christine Skinner is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of York, UK


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