Public views on child support more child focused than law

Public views about what is fair in child support disagree substantially with the law: the public is more focused on child welfare

By Ira M. Ellman and , Sanford L. Braver and , | May 2015 

Richer dads should pay more but poorer dads should pay less when mom or a new husband earns well, finds unique long-term research into public attitudes.

The American public takes a different approach to setting the amount of legally required child support payments than does the American law, and the British public disagrees even more strongly with current British law.

The public in both countries generally endorses the law’s role in compelling child support payments, a policy entrenched in American law but in retreat in the UK. But when we asked people to play “judge” and set the child support amount, in dollars or pounds, across a series of cases with systematically varying facts, we found the public believes the mother’s income should matter in deciding how much the father should pay. The support formula applied in about eight American states, as well as the UK, looks only at the father’s income and takes no account whatever of the mother’s income. While the remaining American states do consider the mother’s income in their support formulas, they give it only a third of the weight that the public gives it.

“It would appear that family law has not moved as rapidly as has the public on family issues and that the public is more focused on child welfare.”

American respondents believed fathers should pay the same percentage of their income in child support whether their income was low or high, but believed that the percentage should be higher when the mother’s income was lower. That pattern departs from the law in most American states, which generally requires low-income dads to pay a higher percentage of their income for support than it requires of high-income dads. The UK public would require high-income dads to pay a higher percentage of their income in support, while the UK law generally applies the same percentage to high and low income dads.

Combining these two policies results in a support schedule that demands higher payments than does the UK law and the typical American law from a high-earning father to a low-earning mother, but lower payments from a low-earning father to a high-earning mother. On the one hand, the public believes the purpose of child support is not limited to keeping children out of poverty: they believe fathers who earn enough to provide their child with amenities should do so. On the other hand, they would not require low-income fathers to make burdensome payments to mothers who do not need the money to provide a financially adequate environment for their children. Both these results seem apt if one is focused primarily on ensuring the child’s welfare, because lower payments to high-income mothers will not matter as much to the child as will higher payments to low-income mothers.

This interpretation that the public is more focused than the law on child welfare is strengthened by our most recent study, which looked at whether and how the American public would take account of the custodial mother’s remarriage, or move to a distant location, in setting the required support amount. We found the public would require lower support payments when the mother remarried, especially if her new husband earned more than the father, although they certainly would continue requiring the father to pay something. This contrasts with the dominant American rule that does not allow any consideration of a stepfather’s income in setting the father’s support obligation. Results from the UK were similar. The stepfather’s importance in the child’s life, emotionally as well as financially, is likely to be greater if the mother, child and stepfather relocate together to a new home that is distant from the father’s.

The American respondents further reduced the amount of support they would require when the mother moved as well as remarried.

The public’s focus on the child’s interests was also apparent in the results of an earlier study in this research programme that asked the American respondents whether, and in what amount, they would favour requiring the father to pay the mother alimony. Respondents felt that alimony was more appropriate if young children from the relationship were living with the mother (even if she was also receiving child support) and less appropriate if the children were grown up. Some respondents considered alimony to be appropriate in some cases where the couple are not married, a practice that is rare in American law.

All these findings spring out of a series of studies we conducted over fifteen years, covering not only child support and alimony, but also the division of marital property, parenting time and marital fault. The parenting time studies suggest the public, both men and women, prefer equal parenting time (or equally “shared parenting”), and that it is difficult to push them from that allocation, even in cases in which judges and custody evaluators would be likely to believe that shared parenting is not appropriate.

It would appear that family law has not moved as rapidly as has the public on family issues and that the public is more focused on child welfare. We believe the public’s views reflect sound values, and that the law should be revised to align more closely with them.


 Ellman IM & Braver SL (2015), Child support and the custodial mother’s move or remarriage: What citizens believe the law should be, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21.1

 Braver SL, Ellman IM, Votruba A & Fabricius WV (2009), Lay judgments about child custody after divorce, SSRN

 Braver SL, Ellman IM & MacCoun R (2012), Public intuitions about fair child support allocations: Converging evidence for a ‘fair shares’ rule, SSRN

 Bryson C, Ellman IM, McKay S & Miles J (2015), Child maintenance: how would the British public calculate what the State should require parents to pay?, Nuffield Foundation 2015

 Ellman IM (2015), Summary of published articles on child support, Arizona State University website

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