In the first blog in this Series, we noted that, when parents separate, the legal system focuses on the Physical Custody Schedule, which, as found in research, while not trivial, is the least important predictor of outcomes for children with separated parents. We then listed the Seven Factors that are important and promised that we would submit a series of Blogs that begin with the least important, the Physical Custody Schedule, and then address the remaining Factors in the order of the least important to the most important. In the second Blog in this Series, we addressed factors that research indicates are important when designing a child-focused Physical Custody Schedule. Mirroring healthy intact marriages with children, the amount of time that each of the parents spend with the children is largely irrelevant. Other factors, such as the involvement of parents in activities outside of the family, are much more important.
In this, the third Blog in the Series, we address the sixth most important factor: the socio-educational-economic status of the parents post-separation at. This is rarely a factor because the only thing that matters is whether or not the parents are below the poverty line. Above the poverty line, this is not a factor. The law requires parents to support their children financially, without specifics about what this really means. This includes stable housing. Children are required to be fed, but no regulation suggests that this must mean healthy food and healthy amounts.
However, there is credible research finding that financial instability and poverty do negatively affect long-term outcomes for children. This is practical, not prejudicial. Divorce comes into play if the divorce itself thrusts a family, or even one of the two parents, into poverty. If the separation plunges one or both parents into the level of poverty, a serious risk factor has been introduced into the family experience of the children. Families do not need to be rich to have more successful children; they simply need to stay above the poverty line, in both homes. They just need enough money so these children can afford the local soccer league, school basketball team, Spanish club and so on. They just need enough to go camping or to parks.
All too often, especially in a divorce, parents engage in conflict over money and sometimes use the children as leverage and reasons for reaching favorable financial settlements. Most parents are financially insecure at the time of a separation and divorce, and look, in part to child support, for financial security. The lower earner might want more child support and the higher earner might want less child support. However, when focusing on the children, at a minimum, the solution should be to make sure that both parents stay above the poverty line.
However, considering this factor, there is an important point to be made. Parents, as part of their financial planning, focus on the experiences and opportunities that they want their children to have. Part of the responsibility of parents is to pay for those experiences and opportunities. Income sharing, in the form of child support, should be directed at those goals, not trying to get more money or trying to give less. The discussion should be about the life style that they would like their children to enjoy, in both homes, what they can reasonably afford and what amount of income sharing accomplishes those goals. Many jurisdictions have child support guidelines, often based on good research on actual child-related costs, but by focusing on their own goals, parents might have higher or lower levels of income sharing in their plan.
The lesson is that children need geographic stability, intellectual stimulation at home, involvement in extracurricular activities and social programs that help with social development and to eat healthfully. This requires a minimal amount of money in each home, almost always involving the efforts of both parents and an exchange of income in the form of child support, where appropriate. The good news is that the level of income, when over the poverty line, makes little difference in child outcomes. Parents might have a sense of unfairness if one home seems to be operating at a higher level of available money, but the child-focused issue is simply that both homes have enough resources to maintain geographic stability, stimulation, participation in social activities and healthy food.
Separated parents should focus on a Financial Plan for their children, not trying to get more money or trying to give less money. Most importantly, parents should focus on the best physical custody schedule for their children and pay what is needed to make that work.