My mother feels defeated by her child support battles
August 11, 2012 1:52 PM   Subscribe

My mother hasn't received child support payments from my father for over a year; I think she's become incredibly depressed about her treatment by the legal system, and has come to believe that no matter what she does, she'll have to bear the full financial burden of raising my sister. Help me inspire her with a rational reason why she should keep trying.

Some background: I'm the oldest of two children (myself and my sister), and my parents separated after I had already reached the age of maturity. I haven't spoken to my father since the separation, nor have my mother or sister - to keep it succinct, he was an abusive man, and none of us want to try to "make it work" after the hell that we endured when we were a family.

They divorced not long after the separation. My father didn't get any custody of my sister (as I said, they haven't spoken for years), and my mother got a restraining order against him. My father was made to pay a weekly child support payment - and, loving father that he was, negotiated it down to the state minimum of $49/week. He was also obligated to pay half of all my sister's out-of-pocket medical expenses. Though I was in college at the time, he was not obligated by the court to pay me anything; nevertheless, to let me know how he felt, he cut me and my sister out of his life insurance.

Since mid-2011, he's stopped paying both child support and medical expenses. He owes about a year's worth in back payments, and my mother has had to take on a second job to help make ends meet - my sister has also taken on a job to pay her own expenses. For the most part, both have trouble making ends meet, and my mother lives week-to-week, constantly exhausted and frazzled.

My father hasn't been employed since about 2007, so we've been told repeatedly that there is no way to garnish his wages or find out what he earns. He moves from place to place - I know he lived with his brother briefly, and he also lived [illegally] in the empty rooms of a hotel. I think he lives with a friend now, but I really don't know. My mother thinks it's possible that he has been earning money under the table somehow, this entire time, and that he's deliberately concealing it from us so as to avoid paying child support. This is possible, but, of course, also just speculation.

A few months ago, my mother took my father to Family Court for non-payment of child support and medical expenses. The court ruled that he was "willfully disobedient" of the divorce order, but had no set penalty in place for willful disobedience (which infuriates me, but the law is the law), and asked my mother to select the penalty. She asked her lawyer for probation, but - for whatever reason - her lawyer stood and asked that "no penalty be assessed."

This launched my mother into a deep depression. She is noticeably more apathetic about everything, and even though her lawyer advised her to just "go to court a second time" she doesn't think it would be worth the grief. She now believes that, even if my father were placed on probation, my sister would probably still never receive the child support she's owed. I think she firmly believes that, just like during their marriage, my father will continue to evade responsibility and face no consequences for it.

I have a suspicion that there are probably more ways for my mother to recover these child support payments than she sees, but she has simply become too enervated by this entire experience to keep trying. I too am at a loss as to what to do, and am forced to agree with her that, even if the 'penalty assessed' had been jail time, my father would probably still be able to successfully shirk these payments.

I know none of you are "a" lawyer or "my/her" lawyer, but at this point, I just need a convincing reason that would inspire her to meet with her lawyer. What other avenues to recover this money might she even have? Are we screwed?

(Also, we're in New York state, if that helps)
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (12 answers total)
In New York state - I would start here. I don't know that it will be any less grueling that the path she's already been down -- but these state agencies are there for a reason, and I would imagine they've seen everything when it comes to child support shenanigans.

Does the thought of creating a permanent record of his non-payment motivate your mother at all? Even if she manages to recover little to no money, these judgments against him will follow him, and may make it harder for him to take out loans and other things. He's on record as a deadbeat, which is no small service to the rest of humanity.

Apart from that, it sounds like she may need treatment for depression. Financial problems of course complicate getting treatment, but she may be in a better position for future battles with your father if she has gotten some help with this.

I'm so sorry you are in the middle of this. She has done a great thing by raising such a compassionate child.
posted by pantarei70 at 2:01 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

You might at least consider that your mother may be right. The legal system works slowly, can be quite costly, and can't squeeze "water from a stone." If she's exhausted, giving up may be the rational decision. Why throw away good time and money to go to court when (on paper at least), he may have no money for the court to demand be paid?
posted by slidell at 2:49 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I lived through this also. Our abusive father withheld funds that were to be shared after the divorce, didn't pay alimony, gamed the legal system, declared bankruptcy, kept child support payments after throwing us out to live with our mother, came to our house when we were out to steal back things he wanted... you get the picture.
My mother was so demoralized and beaten down, she had no fight in her. She tried going to court once - he played her lawyer so that he (the lawyer) ditched literally five minutes before the case came up, handing the brief to a junior who had never seen the file. She lost of course, and never had the courage to try again.
He won. He lived in a nice house with nice things, she tried to feed and clothe all of us on thin air and desperation while living in a house that ended up literally falling apart. She still struggles even though we're all grown and away because she couldn't get out of that pit of debt.

So I guess I'm saying all this to say: FIGHT. FIGHT, damnit. Your mother found the strength to break free, to get away. If she gives up on this she will never get out from under his influence. Get him. Get her money. Do it for all the women like my mother who weren't brave enough, and paid far too high a price.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 2:59 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I could put both of my boys through college with the amount of arrears their father owes them in child support. I have a judgment for the majority of it but it's been made clear to me over the years that there's really nothing that can be done to force someone to pay if they don't want to pay. My ex chose to not have any assets, he chose to work at an hourly wage job with crap benefits for himself just so he wouldn't have to "pay for me" etc. He was censured for voluntarily impoverishing himself, but that doesn't pay the bills.

Your mother has to figure out how to raise her child on her own, such that any child support that comes in is a luxury. When I did receive child support, my kids went to 4-H camp. When I didn't, then I picked up extra freelance work. The reality is that she can't count on it. She can stay on top of it, and make sure child support enforcement and the legal system is involved to the extent that when he does work, he gets garnished, and if he acquires assets, there are liens placed on them, but she needs to raise her child on her own.
posted by headnsouth at 3:24 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

I understand that this is frustrating, but whether or not he actually has the money (he may truly be penniless, or is willing to be just to avoid payment), I believe the winning move is for your family succeed on their own.

Are the lawyers costing you money? Dump them. Forget about him. Focus on your family and do what you need for the family to succeed. Don't focus on what could have been or what should be, focus on what you have now and how to build a future with it. You can succeed, but you need to look forward, beyond this speedbump, and build your own future.
posted by jpeacock at 3:30 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

And for what it's worth, now that my children are just about grown and I'm looking back on things, my boys didn't suffer for not having money, and they didn't suffer for only having one parent around. Where they -- and I -- suffered was in not having enough of a village.

Your mom is going to be tired for a long time, she's going to work hard and juggle conflicting responsibilities and sometimes she's going to wish things were different. She needs friends, other parents, other adults who aren't necessarily parents but who she spends time with ... she needs to carpool and trade playdate-hosting, she needs to not feel bad about asking other parents to help with this or that, she needs to say no when the PTA and other groups ask for her time or money or other resources. She needs to take care of herself and take some breaks so that she's not constantly on the treadmill of work and child-rearing.

If her current depression persists, she needs to get treatment for it. She deserves to take care of herself, and your sister deserves to grow up with a mother who takes care of herself.

It's all about the village, and if your mom is like me, she may be too focused on her responsibilities to look around her and recognize the resources that are available to her. Parenting is pretty easy from one day to the next but it's a long-ass slog, an endurance event like no other. The occasional breaks and some extra-curricular activities give you perspective so you can keep being reminded of how much you actually do love it.
posted by headnsouth at 3:49 PM on August 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

If your sister is old enough to have a job and the payments are only in default for a year, then your mother's depression is caused by something other than lack of child support payments. Ask her to seek help, assuming she won't receive any child support, outside of the legal system.
posted by goo at 4:48 PM on August 11, 2012

Years ago, I sent my young sister-in-law a book on collecting child support. I just googled and there appear to be several available, for example: Linky I highly reccommend getting her something like that.

My recollection from the book I bought my sister-in-law years ago is that many women do eventually get back pay for child support payments, often as a large lump sum. Most men eventually get jobs again and men tend to make more money than women. In the mean time, maybe look for other forms of support. Can she get foodstamps to help cover the shortfall? Is there a family resource center? Can you make a list of thrift stores and other cheap ways she can get some of her needs met? Could she qualify for assistance from a food pantry?

Since this is not "her fault", she may find a lot of people are sympathetic and will cut her some slack and/or be very helpful in hooking her up with resources. That can really make a difference. Here in San Diego, Catholic Charities runs a number of things which are aimed at helping low income people. This page is from their New York diocese. They have a food pantry and they are very likely to be able to get her additional information about resources in the area.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 5:13 PM on August 11, 2012

She asked her lawyer for probation, but - for whatever reason - her lawyer stood and asked that "no penalty be assessed."

For what it's worth, that's probably because probation isn't necessarily an available remedy here. Probation is the result of a criminal proceeding, and failure to pay child support, even a finding of "willful disobedience" by the judge, isn't a criminal conviction. It's a civil proceeding. Probation isn't really on the table, I don't think. I'm speculating here, but it sounds to me like the lawyer did a bad job of communicating and just made a quick judgment call on the fly, to wit, "Well, she asked for what amounts to zero penalty, so I'll just ask for zero penalty."

I have a suspicion that there are probably more ways for my mother to recover these child support payments than she sees,

Only if the guy has money. Even if the prosecutor takes up the case and does bring criminal charges, you can't be put in jail simply because you're broke. You can be put in jail for refusing to pay a debt that you have the ability to pay, but if you simply can't pay your debts and don't have any income, there really isn't anything anyone can do about it.

Still, it sounds like your mom's lawyer isn't doing an awesome job. Two things. First, asking the judge for no penalty without explaining things to your mom is just bad client relations. If the client asks for something that doesn't make sense--and that happens all the time--the right thing to do is explain to them why whatever it is isn't going to work and suggest an alternative. Heck, there probably wasn't any real need to make the request for penalty on the spot. "Judge, I need to confer with my client. We'll have something for you in seven days," would almost certainly have been acceptable. Second, the fact that your father hasn't been working for five years yet also isn't homeless suggests that he does, in fact, have some kind of income from somewhere. Civil litigation, like suing for child support, gives one subpoena power. You basically have the power to get all up in his business. Discovery is highly intrusive and highly unpleasant. So if he's got money from somewhere, you can figure this out. If you bother, that is.

So yeah. New lawyer. But recognize that a lawyer is going to cost you money, but there's no guarantee that you'll ever get a dime out of this guy. You can't get blood from a stone. I've defended cases where the plaintiff basically just walked away because the defendant was unable to satisfy any kind of judgment whatsoever. That might be the thing to do here. So yeah, get your court order, and keep an eye out, but don't bet on ever getting anything.
posted by valkyryn at 7:21 PM on August 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Listen to what valkryn says: " a lawyer is going to cost you money, but there's no guarantee that you'll ever get a dime out of this guy. You can't get blood from a stone. I've defended cases where the plaintiff basically just walked away because the defendant was unable to satisfy any kind of judgment whatsoever."

In other words, you could spend, oh, $10,000 or more filing suit and going through the complicated discovery process, and end up realizing he had no resources to take, and deciding to drop the case. At that point, your mom may really wish she had that $10k back.

(However, I don't know how family court works. Maybe there's a cheaper way to proceed.)
posted by slidell at 9:31 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe there's a cheaper way to proceed.

Family court isn't all that expensive, all things considered. It's more likely to be in the neighborhood of $2,000 than $10,000, and many family lawyers will do things for a flat fee rather than billing by the hour. But yeah, it's gonna cost some money. And because this guy is likely broke, no lawyer is going to want to take this on contingency.
posted by valkyryn at 3:23 AM on August 12, 2012

OP, your mother is doubtless smart enough to know she can't get blood from a stone, and didn't realistically expect her latest trip to court was going to result in a big check placed in her hands.

I'd guess she's depressed because, once again, she's confronted with her anger at your father for being a bum and herself for having married one, and she's yet to find a new narrative in her life to take the place of that. The court process in that respect can be like buying a lottery ticket: you know, at a level, that it's not going to do anything for you, but on another level it's a little bit of a vacation from reality.

If you want to help her you'd really focus on what's next -- making more money, having more purpose, being a good mother -- rather than on what's past.
posted by MattD at 7:23 AM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

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