What are the ethical arguments for child suport?
October 22, 2008 4:19 PM   Subscribe

There are plenty of great legal and practical arguments for child support payments out there, but what about an ethical argument?

It isn't hard to come up with practical and legal justifications for a single mom to require child support from the father. But what about the ethical arguments?

I know a single mother who is working out an agreement with the father of their unplanned, forthcoming child (four months away). She earns a bit more than he does and plans to live alone with the baby. Although they are no longer a couple, she and the dad get along well and may or may not revisit the relationship in the future. He wants to be an equal parental partner in some as-yet-undefined capacity.

The big issue at the moment is money. The father had committed to helping my friend out with ~20% of her rent, but he made that promise when she was looking at homes that would entail a big increase in rent. Very recently she managed to find something more affordable, and when the father learned this he seemed to rescind his offer of financial support. Since his salary is actually the lower of the two and times are tight for him already, his reasoning actually makes a kind of sense. Nevertheless, my friend had a different understanding and thought his support was unconditional (even if it would be a different amount). She is very upset with him now, but they are both committed to working it out.

Both parents should visit lawyers and iron out something better than a verbal agreement as soon as possible, but they really don't want to go there yet and I obviously can't make them. Fortunately they will probably see a couples counselor soon, which is a pretty good start (I recommended that they pick one who has mediation training).

In preparation for her next conversation with the father, I have advised my friend to develop an estimated budget. This should bolster her argument when they resume talks. However, she does not feel she should even have to argue for money in the first place. She and I were both uncertain about the ethical argument (assuming there even is one) and so I thought I would look here.
posted by christopherious to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A very basic ethical argument is that if you're going to make children, it's unethical not to support them.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:21 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ethics is a personal matter and there is no consensus about ethics. That's why we rely on legal judgments in this kind of situation, not on ethical judgments. Everyone has their own ethics, but there is only one law, and there are judges to interpret it, and police to enforce those interpretations.
posted by Class Goat at 4:38 PM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

It may be easier for him to see this in terms of supporting the child, not the mother. Put everything in terms of what the baby needs. Ethically speaking, the obligation to the helpless infant whom you helped to create is far easier to explain and intuit than an obligation to a woman with whom you've broken ties.
posted by prefpara at 4:40 PM on October 22, 2008

So, he would be OK with paying 20 percent of the more expensive rent, but not 20 percent of the cheaper rent?
posted by Airhen at 5:12 PM on October 22, 2008

If he were living with mom and kid, he'd pay. If he had sole custody, he'd have to spend money to support the child.

My dad was...inconsistent with child support. I never starved, or went without food, but I did grow up knowing that I wasn't a high enough priority in his life that he would send some money, even fifty bucks, if that was all he could afford. My mom and I were on food stamps for a while. She made a lot of sacrifices, financial and otherwise, for me, something I didn't see my dad do.

Is that the kind of thing that your friend wants his kid to grow up thinking?

(caveat: he didn't exactly make up for it in other ways, either, which may or may not have made a difference in my attitude.)
posted by rtha at 5:12 PM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Children need to be supported somehow. Societies could allocate the obligation to support them in different ways -- in Plato's Republic, for example, he proposes that the children of the philosophers should be raised in common. But in this society, we've collectively decided, democratically, to allocate the obligation of support to parents, on the fairly sensible intuition that if parents don't want the obligation, they are free to avoid it by not producing children.
posted by paultopia at 5:13 PM on October 22, 2008

So, wait, what are the "practical and legal justifications" that are so easy to come up with? I'm guessing those have some kind of ethical basis.
posted by tushfestival at 5:18 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Class Goat has it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:45 PM on October 22, 2008

If he plans to be involved in the life of his child, he should be involved in helping to pay the costs of raising his child. Each parent's contribution should be proportionate to his or her ability to pay, but a child deserves parents who want to contribute to giving it all of the things it needs. If he doesn't want to make those contributions, he shouldn't be involved in his child's life. His child deserves better.
posted by decathecting at 6:10 PM on October 22, 2008

Child support isn't for the non-custodial parent; it is for the child. I'm baffled that anything more needs to be said. Pope Guilty has it: both parents bear the responsibility for creating the child, so both parents bear the responsibility for providing it with food, shelter, clothing, toys, education, etc.

The fact that he earns less than her isn't really relevant. Both parents have the obligation to contribute. (Besides, kids are expensive, and the cost of raising this kid will probably eat up the difference between their incomes, and then some. But even if he earned a tenth of what she earns, I would still say he should contribute financially.)
posted by Orinda at 6:20 PM on October 22, 2008

The actual cost of a child is pretty huge. Let's say there's a 1-1/2 or 2 bedroom apartment. The child takes bedroom number two. So, 40 to 50 percent of the rent is for the child (or, 25 percent of the total per parent). Plus with a single parent, it's not really practical to live with roommates. So it's not as though mom can take two rooms in a five-room share. And the rent is only one of several very expensive elements -- there's health insurance, daycare, transportation, clothing, food. So, honestly, 20 percent of rent is a drop in the bucket of the actual out-of-pocket cost. Even if you divide the out-of-pocket costs into two pro rata shares based on the difference in income, unless the difference is really dramatic, 20 percent of rent (either expensive rent or cheap rent) can no way even approach a fair share of the out-of-pocket costs.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:29 PM on October 22, 2008

I also agree with Class Goat.

But I disagree with this comment:

>there is no consensus about ethics

This may be true elsewhere. On this particular point, I think you would find a remarkable consensus.

She should not rely on "working out an agreement". She should make sure that any agreement is memorialized, or any disagreement resolved, in a court order.
posted by yclipse at 6:30 PM on October 22, 2008

The ethical argument is that children don't choose to come into this world, so parents have a duty to support them.
posted by abdulf at 6:44 PM on October 22, 2008

I think what prefpara is saying is the ethical argument.

Basically his logic seems to be, "things are cheaper, so she won't need the money and things are tight for me right now, call me if there is a problem."

Sure. Swell. What happens when things change? If your friend's finances aren't going to be dire (well, more dire than anyone else's) with the addition of a child to the mix, and they get along well and are both committed to working something out, I'd try to get him to agree to setting up something like a trust fund, where some value X is automatically deducted from his pay check and stuck in the fund. IANAL but I'm pretty sure you can set up funds with all kinds of predefined stipulations so that dad can't decided, ten years down the road, to bail on the whole thing and take the balance with him, and mom can't decided that baby needs a new red sports car.

Assuming nothing comes up before college, putting $50 a week into something that is relatively safe would still give the kid $60,000 for college at age 18. Heck, at the rate things are going that might buy two welding classes at a community college come 2026.

(You might want to drop my cynicism if you present this suggestion.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:15 PM on October 22, 2008

I'm not at all a Christian, but the first thing that came to mind in response to the question was "As ye sow, so shall ye reap."
posted by Forrest Greene at 7:19 PM on October 22, 2008

I'm a little worried about the ethics of changing the agreement for his own convenience. This ain't no puppy.

The problem with adjusting his contribution to her expenses is that expenses change. Kids, especially little ones, get sick fast, and you have to move fast. It's great that he figured out he could help with 20% of say, $1000, but if she's paying $800, he can still afford that $200, and he should pay it. Similarly, she can bank whatever she saved for future needs. Responsible adults plan ahead.

A typical support arrangement has the non custodial parent paying some amount, plus half of any medical, dental, school, or daycare expenses. It's totally dependent on that parent's income, not anybody's expenses.

I'm thinking she needs to get something in writing and notarized. She needs some kind of contract that can be enforced. Depending on what state they're in, there's probably templates available online.

[insert standard non-expert disclaimer here]
posted by lysdexic at 7:34 PM on October 22, 2008

He agreed to 20%. It's not her problem he feels emasculated because she makes more money. Is his word worth nothing? I'd be freaking out too if upon telling some guy that his responsibility was actually going to cost less than we'd thought - he then informed me that he would be paying nothing.

She has money so of course it's not about the money. :) this guy is a dick. He's bailing on an agreement which has become more favorable towards him. A child... is massive. All kinds of situations are going to pop up continually. Receiving this news with a smile would've been a more reassuring reaction :) You know?

But then at this point it would just be money to him. I'm sure getting a kicking in the guts while she's trying to sleep ect. has brought this point home to her in a way that he is yet to realize for himself.

Ethics... Meh? Who knows. But I think a little Empathy for each other might just do the trick? Maybe she doesn't need the money at all, she'd just like the reassurance. Maybe he can find another way to give that to her?
It's good to know that people have got your back. That the mother of your child doesn't want you destitute, living on the street and that the father of your child will find an avenue to make a positive contribution, just something, anything - because that's what he wants to do.

Don't get lawyers. The kid wants a Tickle-Me Elmo, I'm sure :)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 9:14 PM on October 22, 2008

Christ do they need lawyers. He needs to know what's going to be expected of him in the coming years and establish a claim for custody/visitation/paternity testing if he wants it. She needs an order for payments so that if he flakes out she can go after him right away instead of having to initiate and pay for the process while trying to raise and pay for a child on her own.

If they want to skip it for now, show him how much more the kid is gonna cost her. Ask how much the kid will reasonably cost him. He's responsible for half the difference because he's responsible for half the kid. I don't know if that's practical or ethical, but it's the best way I can see to resolve the situation without getting a judge to dig through all the financial/custodial issues. He'll probably decide 20% of her rent is a much better deal, though he should be warned that his obligations can be modified in the future without much say on his part and without regard to agreements (like the one suggested by lysdexic) made by the mom.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 11:21 PM on October 22, 2008

20% of rent seems a really low support amount. Has she calculated how much it will cost her to stay off work after the birth? And when she returns to work the daycare costs for an infant will eat up their difference in pay pretty fast. Children are REALLY expensive. I believe that since the support is owed to the child the parents cannot legally make an agreement between themselves for support because it isn't THEIR right to support they are negotiating, it is the child's. And ethically, they each pay 50% because they are each half responsible for the child's existence. Has she looked at the child support guidelines for her state? He is acting in bad faith and she should be aware that although SHE is already emotionally attached and to this child, he does not seem to be and wishful thinking won't pay the daycare bills and won't help her to build a relationship with him later.
posted by saucysault at 4:35 AM on October 23, 2008

It seems the times to debate this kind of crap are:

1) pre-conception (when birth control is an option)
2) first trimester (when abortion is an option)

Once a birth decision is made, provided it's made bi-laterally, the kid comes first.

If dad isn't making enough money, perhaps he should make more. Unlike a car he might have bought that turns out to be too expensive, he can't just sell the kid. He should have thought with his cortex, not his penis. Why should his lack of income be a concern? It's too late now.

Ditto momma. Presuming for a moment that her breeding intentions were honest, which is an unwarranted assumption, she had the same decision tree to confront. Now, it's too late to alter the consequences. Did she not consider that the decision to bear this kid might imply that she would have to support it alone? Not many people get to breeding age without sensing the reality of this statement. I mean, how many times has this happened in the last few million years?

Ideally, daddy should pay and so should mommy. Amounts can be relative to the share of the asset/obligation/workload mix of each, but that is an economic analysis, not an ethical analysis.

The ethics are that the couple has a baby to nurture. They are both responsible. They are both on the hook and being lawyeresque in the face of that fact is demonstrably wrong. The child is blameless in this situation.

Honestly, they ought to get married as pennance for their lack of judgment.
posted by FauxScot at 5:24 AM on October 23, 2008

She needs to lawyer up and find out how much she might be entitled to WITHOUT his input (ie, how much a judge would likely award her). Once she has that number (which I suspect is quite a bit higher than 20% of her cheaper rent), she can negotiate with him and they can come to an agreement together. Ultimately, he may not get to choose how much he pays her, so he ought to be working to keep his word.

It's great that they're amicable right now. I don't think it will stay that way, especially with him rescinding his offer.
posted by purplecurlygirl at 6:52 AM on October 23, 2008

A practical argument is an ethical argument.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:07 AM on October 23, 2008

Child support disagreements are never really about money, they are at heart always about power.
Power is a strange thing and at times stronger than blood.

An ethical child support agreement is one that meets the needs of the child, while empowering BOTH parents to be the best caregivers in the world. The courts never recognize the power sharing (not custody) aspect of child support, hence there is often one parent who is left powerless and retaliates through withholding money.
posted by Xurando at 7:53 AM on October 23, 2008

I wrote: Child support isn't for the non-custodial parent; it is for the child.

Oops. I meant to say, child support isn't for the CUSTODIAL parent. The point is, although in this case the father would be giving money to the mother, it isn't for her, and shouldn't be thought of as "helping her out"; it is for the child. He isn't "helping out" anybody, even the child (do you think of your parents as having "helped you out" by putting a roof over your head and strained peas in your mouth?). He is meeting a really basic obligation.
posted by Orinda at 7:54 AM on October 23, 2008

It seems odd to me that they would agree to a percentage arrangement for support rather than a fixed amount. This is what happens when nobody consults legal advice or considers that they might have a future disagreement.

Anyhow, I agree with Pope Guilty and prefpara: It's about the ethical obligation to the child. Ethically, parents are expected to support their children.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:13 AM on October 23, 2008

You don't say where the parent's are but in case they are American, State guidelines for child support (excluding daycare/health insurance/school costs) are here. If she has to "convince" him to support his child then she has already lost. He isn't on her team. Sorry, these situations can be devastating for all involved.
posted by saucysault at 8:40 AM on October 23, 2008

My dad was...inconsistent with child support. I never starved, or went without food, but I did grow up knowing that I wasn't a high enough priority in his life that he would send some money, even fifty bucks, if that was all he could afford. My mom and I were on food stamps for a while. She made a lot of sacrifices, financial and otherwise, for me, something I didn't see my dad do.

Is that the kind of thing that your friend wants his kid to grow up thinking?

(caveat: he didn't exactly make up for it in other ways, either, which may or may not have made a difference in my attitude.)

Yes, I went through this as well. And my dad was the parent who wanted children and convinced my mom to get pregnant (not against her will, mind, but it had never been *her* idea to have kids - she was totally on the fence). Then, when the relationship didn't work out... oh hey, that kid of mine totally doesn't need any money. Or any of my time.

My father has, even in my adult life, been totally irresponsible and not only failed to provide for me - but on the rare occasion where he HAS helped out, he's pulled out the rug. Most recently I was unemployed and needed help with paying for prescriptions for a chronic condition. I absolutely can not function without these meds, and they're pretty expensive. My dad couldn't afford to pay the whole thing, but he was willing to help me with half. Well, one day he decided that I had been unemployed for too long and this was obviously my fault (wtf?!) so I needed to pay for them myself. That was it. End of story.

Financially, ok, maybe this made some sense. But ethically? Who stops paying for their child's MEDICATION? And this is just an example of what he's done my entire life. Agreed to a certain amount of help and then decided later that he just isn't up to it.

I totally can not deal with my father and admittedly harbor a lot of resentment. Your friend is setting himself up to have his kid really hate him if he starts bailing on his obligations from birth. If he wants to be a part of the kid's life, he's sending a mixed message by not pony-ing up financially. No matter what the mother thinks, the kid will know about this and get the message of "Oh well, you're not THAT important."

If he wants a RELATIONSHIP with his kid, he'd better face facts that this involves shelling out. Money can't buy you love, but the lack of money can certainly buy you resentment.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:01 AM on October 23, 2008

I knew I'd heard of some studies about this, and found some with a little googling of "payment of child support" "effects on children", including this one.

Didn't reread these closely, but what I remember is:

Fundamentally, it seems that separate from the contribution that additional money might make to a child's well-being, the act of payment in itself makes things better for the child. Having an absent parent that (at least appears to) care enough to contribute might make children feel more valued and safe in this big, scary world. Nonpayment is a big act of rejection, I think.

In my experience professionally, children really notice when parents don't pay support. They say things to me like "My mom doesn't even give me enough money to buy school clothes but she buys herself new clothes" or "My dad says he can't afford to give my mom money but he (buys cigarettes) (bought a car) (drinks) (whatever)".

And kids also notice what other kids have that they don't have. "Jimmy gets to live with his mom AND his dad. And his dad comes to his games and takes us out for pizza afterwards". Your friend's child will be missing things in his/her life that lots of other kids have, right from birth. One more absence, that of willing and generous support, will definitely be noticed.
posted by purenitrous at 10:28 AM on October 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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