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Lawsuit Says Child Support Guidelines 'Unfair'

Are the new child support guidelines fair? A lawsuit filed Monday says they need more public scrutiny.

"I have two daughters, 9 today," says Andrew Pelser.

Andrew Pelser proudly shows pictures of his daughters that he carries in his wallet.

Twins, twin red heads.

Pelser has been divorced for three years and now lives in Brighton. The new child support guidelines just increased his court required payment by 15%. Pelser, who works in heating and air conditioning, now pays $300 a week in child support and $270 in alimony, which leaves him $250 a week for his living expenses.

"It makes it tough just week to week based on what I'm obligated to pay the judge," says Pelser. "They don't have any bearing on it. Those are your orders and good luck.

Pelser is among the thousands of non-custodial parents, mostly men, who've seen their child support increase this year. It took two years to rework the guidelines.

"This is probably the most significant change since the onset of the child support guidelines," says Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court Paula Carey.

She who chaired the 12 member task force that suggested how to change the child support formula.

"We're trying to put a balance in place to make sure that no child is left without some adequate amount of support for them."

Carey says the guidelines are more responsive to the complicated situations families are facing. For instance, they place financial burden on both parents by considering both their incomes. The old guidelines disregarded $20,000 of the custodial parent's income.

But it doesn't feel equal to Simon Peffers. He's an engineer who lives in Acton. He has a two-and-a-half-year-old son and pays $2,200 a month after taxes to support him.

"Child support is important because you need to give your child and my son I really want him to have the best involvement to grow up in and that includes everything he needs," Peffers says. "But it does seem like a lot to me."

Even though Peffers earns twice as much as his son's mother, after paying child support, they have the same amount of live on. They never married.

Peffers is now married to another woman and has to watch his money closely. He and his wife want to have children, but can't afford to right now.

Peffers' story is common says Ned Holstein, president of Fathers and Families.

Holstein was on the task force revising the guidelines but wrote a minority report that says they treat parents inequitably, are irrational, and contrary to the best interests of the children.

"Fathers and families believes that what is best for children is what I call a two condo solution," Holstein says. "Instead what these child support orders do is create one castle and one shack. And that's not good for a child to go back and forth between two homes that are vastly different in their material standard of living."

Holstein has made a chart to show how the new guidelines apply to various income levels. In the vast majority of cases, support orders went up, sometimes substantially. He looks at what would happen if both parents earn $50,000 a year.

"And the increase in the child support order in the current guidelines compared to the old guidelines is a 59% increase," Holstein says, "just as we go into a recession."

Holstein is filling a civil lawsuit against Robert Mulligan, Chief Justice of Administration and Management who is in charge of the guidelines. The suit says the process was secretive, that the judge did not use data on the real cost of raising children and ignored public comments.

Judge Mulligan refused to comment because he's named in the lawsuit.

Family Court Chief Justice Paula Carey says the task force did consider public input and a combination of models to determine child rearing costs. Judge Carey says most child support payments went up since the new rules, but she would characterize the overall reaction as mixed to good.

"Anecdotally we've gotten good feedback and people seem to believe that the guidelines treat parents fairly," Carey says, "that it's a consistent formulaic approach for shared parenting that the higher levels are captured."

The old guidelines didn't apply to high income earners. Instead, lawyers and judges worked out an agreement on a case by case basis.

The new guidelines do apply and Divorce lawyer Bill Levine of the Boston firm, Lee and Levine, says the new guidelines require higher payments for his wealthy clients. Levine says people are dissatisfied on both sides of the equation.

"Frequently jaws drop when they payor is told how much the payment is going to be and natural response of the person who is going to be receiving the payment in most cases, 'That's no enough to meet my expenses on,'" Levine says.

The group Fathers and Families says child support payments are also 13% higher for low income earners. Federal law says the legislature or the courts can determine the guidelines.

Most states require a vote in the legislature. Massachusetts lets the court decide. And that's what's in contention in the lawsuit being filed today.

This program aired on March 16, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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