Proposed legislation rewrites guidelines for courts to use; covers wealthy for first time

Some child support payments in Maryland could soon go up - a change that state Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald called "long overdue."

For the first time in two decades, lawmakers are poised to revise the guidelines that courts use to set child support when divorcing or unmarried parents cannot agree on an amount. Those guidelines are based on household expense data from the 1970s, and although they accommodate rising incomes, advocates say they don't account for the escalating costs of raising a child.

Human Resources officials estimate there are about 500,000 child support orders in Maryland - a mix of private agreements and court cases.

"We think the changes are reasonable and fair and about time," said Donald, who led a work group over the past year to revise the guidelines. Her agency administers about half the state's child support cases.

The Senate has already approved the proposal, and members of the House of Delegates committee reviewing it say it is likely to pass in their chamber, too. Courts would begin using the guidelines Oct. 1.

The guidelines are similar to an income tax table. The adjusted gross income of both parents is used to determine what they should be spending on their children. That amount is divided based on the percentage of income that each parent contributes.

For example, in a $60,000 per year household with one child where both parents make the same amount of money, the noncustodial parent pays $335 per month in support to the custodial parent.

Under the new guidelines, the noncustodial parent would owe $426 - a 27 percent increase.

Most noncustodial parents would see their support obligation rise under the new guidelines, although the lowest earners would see their payments fall. If the new guidelines become law, parents with existing agreements can ask the court to set a new support amount if the noncustodial parent's payment would change by at least 25 percent.

Human Resources officials say they believe about 35 percent of their cases would fall into that category, meaning as many as 87,500 parents could ask for court hearings.

Some lawmakers and family court officials warned that courts could be overwhelmed with confused and angry parents, but officials with the Maryland Judiciary, which backs changing the guidelines, say they're not worried.

Another major change is that, for the first time, wealthy households would be subjected to the guidelines, which now only cover parents who together earn up to $120,000. The new guidelines would cover parents making three times that amount.

The new guidelines have few - but vocal - opponents.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, called the plan unfair to noncustodial parents. A divorce lawyer, the delegate told his colleagues that one man is expecting to pay $15,000 more per year.

"This redistributes wealth in such a meaningful way for so many people," he said on the Senate floor, asking for more studies to be done before setting new guidelines.

The Senate passed the bill, with only Zirkin and Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County voting against it.

The House Judiciary Committee was set to vote on the proposal Friday but delayed it to study the concerns of Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, and others that the changes unduly burden wealthy noncustodial parents.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat on the committee, said she believes the panel might propose some amendments affecting the wealthiest families but will largely leave the new guidelines intact.

"It's a question of fairness to the kids," she said.

Prince George's County Circuit Judge Cathy H. Serrette, coordinating judge of the county's family court, said child support guidelines have proven useful to judges over the years. Each state is federally required to have them.

"The idea behind guidelines is that parents should share in living expenses in proportion to what they earn," she said. Guidelines, she said, are there so "the whims and biases of judges don't skew without some cogent explanation one way or another."

But not all family court officials agree.

Anne Arundel County Master Charles Muskin, who has overseen family cases for 12 years, predicted a "tsunami of modifications," with angry, noncustodial parents contesting the new payments.

"There is pressure being placed on noncustodial parents who have had a similar cost-of-living increase," he said. "Where are they going to come up with the extra money they'll have to pay?"

Muskin also disagrees with the idea of applying guidelines to the wealthiest families. "My view is that people at the upper ends of the income bracket are less homogeneous, and therefore guidelines won't work," he said.

Now, child support payments for those high earners are set by the court after reviewing the family's financial information and spending patterns. Some judges use a formula-driven computer program that, in the view of Dumais and others, typically sets payments too low for noncustodial parents.

Proponents of changing the guidelines disagreed with Muskin's assessment that the wealthy deserve special consideration. Del. Jeff Waldstreicher said "all parents, not just rich ones, have different ways they spend money on their kids."

He said the higher income ceiling, of $360,000, is meant to anticipate another long stretch without adjusting the guidelines. When the ones in use were set in 1988 by the General Assembly, he said, $120,000, sounded like a lot of money.

"We are trying to build the guidelines to anticipate the future," he said, "in case we don't change them for another 20 years."

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