By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan has launched a free child support calculator to help parents determine what their unique child care responsibilities are.
The public online tool, which existed earlier through several private websites, lets parents enter a number of variables into the state formula for child support and returns a payment estimate. The result is the same as would be determined by Department of Health and Human Services staff — although missing or misentered figures could lead to variations.
State officials said they hoped the calculator would help reduce the conflict between parents that can come from child support settlements, helping both parents understand how support payments are determined and improving the chance for dependable and prompt payments.
“That’s really what we’re looking for for children is reliable, consistent child support payments,” said Erin Frisch, director of the department’s Office of Child Support.
In unveiling the calculator, the state made public what has been used by state attorneys, judges and private companies for years. Now, it is accessible to all.
More than 900,000 families are currently receiving child support services through the program, which facilitates and enforces payment channels. A third of Michigan children are part of the child support system.
Frisch said that with expanding technological capabilities, the state wished to provide more self-service opportunities for families. In addition to accessibility, the calculator was converted to a web-based resource to improve the transparency of child support.
“We touch a lot folks and a lot of families,” Frisch said. “The outcomes that we’re hoping to achieve with this is… creating something that will make it easier for parents to communicate with each other about what goes into their child support calculations, and hopefully giving them a better sense of ownership of that amount and how we got to it.”
The efforts are part of a larger state focus to ease hostility in child support cases.
Michigan is also experimenting with out-of-court resolutions and education courses to inform parents about the importance of establishing legal fatherhood early on, even if couples are unmarried or separated.
“It can be an adversarial process. We still talk about defendants and plaintiffs,” Frisch said. “When parents work together to come up with decisions about how to handle parenting – even if they’re not living together anymore – that’s generally in the child’s best interest.”
The formula for child support in is complex, according to Frisch. Primarily based on income and share of custody, child support payments can also account for stock dividends and “who’s paying for Band-Aids.”
The new public calculator hasn’t changed the procedure in most cases for determining the child support amount — it has just made the formula clearer. When child support claims are brought to the state, judges still make the ultimate determination with the input of lawyers and state case specialists.
Things get complicated when a parent is self-employed or has other revenue sources, such as the reimbursement for travel expenditures or health care benefits.
“The formula works really well for people who are just straight, normal, W2 employees,” said Traverse City family lawyer Gary Allen Gardner.
In cases of nontraditional income, a public child support calculator does little. And these cases are increasing in frequency.
“Even in the last ten years, more and more people are self-employed,” Gardner said. “Their income fluctuates, even if they didn’t manipulate it.”
Steve Capps, director of the Michigan Friend of the Court Bureau, said that cases with unwilling and deceitful participants are the most difficult to handle.
“The biggest problem that the child support program has is when people are not participating in it — by nonparticipation, I mean they don’t provide information,” Capps said. “When you lack information, it’s really hard to get a fair, good order.”
The calculator is not designed to be a panacea. It is primarily to give parents an idea of what to expect before getting involved with the legal system.
“Kind of think of it as someone when you look for help with your tax preparations,” Frisch said. “We might make tweaks. We might say, ‘Looks great…’ So we’re really looking at how we can facilitate those conversations and relationships between parents rather than coming in between.”
As has been the case, parents can choose to settle child support without government assistance, as well, if they come to an agreement.
The calculator is available online at www.michigan.gov/childsupport in the “Parent Resources” menu.
By ISAAC CONSTANS