A bill that would limit how much high-income earners pay in child support and require equalized placement of children in most custody cases is drawing strong criticism from family law practitioners and anti-domestic violence advocates.
But proponents say it would help parents, especially fathers, get a fairer shake when it comes to spending time with and financially supporting children after a breakup.
Assembly Bill 540, sponsored by Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, would ban judges from using incomes above $150,000 to calculate child-support payments. It also would bar judges from taking into account parents’ assets in determining monthly payments.
And the bill would mandate “a placement schedule that equalizes to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent” except in cases of “clear and convincing evidence” that it’s not in the child’s best interest.
The bill’s opponents say the measure, to be debated at a public hearing Wednesday, would take away some of the discretion that judges currently have to craft financial and placement arrangements that they believe are best for children.
Current law mandates “regularly occurring, meaningful periods of physical placement with each parent ... taking into consideration geographic separation and accommodations for different households” unless physical placement would endanger the child’s “physical, mental or emotional health.”
In addition, judges currently must take into consideration the wishes of the child and the parties, the relationship of each parent with the child, the amount and quality of time each parent has previously spent with the child, the child’s adjustment to home, school and community and cooperation and communication between the parents.
Steve Blake, head of the Oxford-based Dads of Wisconsin, said the bill seeks to ensure children have equal time with both parents, where feasible.
“We want the state to protect both dads’ and moms’ rights equally,” Blake said, “and an acknowledgement from the state of Wisconsin that fathers and mothers are equally important in the life of the child.”
In a brief interview, Kleefisch said, “The real push is to equalize fathers’ role in divorces, and child custody and child support.”
Tony Gibart, public policy coordinator for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, said no other state has a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent after a split. AB 540, he said, would “create barriers for victims of domestic violence and their children, and make it much more difficult for judges to create safe placements for children and domestic-abuse victims.”
Versions of that piece of the bill have been introduced in at least two previous sessions but have failed to pass the full Legislature. This time around, the proposal includes a limit on child-support payments for high-income earners, potentially saving them tens of thousands of dollars a year. And it prohibits judges from considering assets such as homes, vehicles and retirement accounts when determining a parent’s ability to pay.
Blake said under current law, monthly child-support payments sometimes go far beyond “clothing, feeding and housing a child and making sure he isn’t on the dole.”
“The $150,000 limit is ... to prevent, for lack of a better term, gold diggers,” Blake said. “I know one guy who is paying $15,000 a month for three kids to a wife who doesn’t work at all.
“The state doesn’t have any compelling state interest that the children of rich people live opulent lifestyles,” he added. “The state’s interest is in protecting the state’s interest in not having to support that child.”
But Linda Roberson, a family law attorney in Madison, said that while the current law is not perfect, she sees no upside to this bill.
“All of the social-science literature and longitudinal studies show that women and children, (especially) housewives and children, have long-term negative (financial) consequences as a result of divorce, and this legislation is going to make it worse,” Roberson said. She added children should be allowed to “share equitably in the family’s income.”
State Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, a member of the Assembly’s Family Law Committee scheduled to hear the bill next week, said the $150,000 cap is “arbitrary.”
“The proposal would protect one parent who makes a lot of income, and not (protect) the best interest of the child,” said Hebl, a lawyer. “This is a bill that should not see the light of day.”
On Tuesday, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Family Law Section voted unanimously to oppose the bill, said Judge Mark Fremgen, a Jefferson County Circuit Court commissioner. The group represents 1,300 attorneys, court-ordered child advocates, family court commissioners and judges working in divorce and child-custody law.
He said the law already allows judges to depart from the set formula in cases involving high-income earners.
“Do the children really need to receive 25 percent of $400,000?” Fremgen asked. “Maybe not.”
As for custody, Fremgen said most judges start with the presumption that both parents will have custody of and a meaningful amount of physical placement with their children.
The problem comes, he said, when that is not practical or desirable.
Fremgen said there are many reasons such an arrangement may not work, ranging from geographic distance between the parents’ homes, work schedules, parents who have not previously had much contact with the child or fathers who weren’t even aware a former partner was pregnant.
“The bill is essentially saying, ‘Ignore the children. Ignore the other circumstances of the family. Just look at the money,’” Fremgen said.
But Blake said the bill would allow parents, in most cases fathers, to continue parenting after a breakup. He said he’s had limited contact with his own three children since he and his wife divorced 18 years ago.
“This legislation is too late for me and my kids,” Blake said. “I have a son. I don’t want him to go through what I and thousands of other dads have had to go through.”