- Judith Bartfeld, Trisha Chanda, Lonnie Berger, and Quentin Riser
- December 2022
- Link to CSRA-2020-2022-T5 (PDF)
The growth of shared placement blurs the distinction between resident and nonresident parents while making it challenging to understand the nature and extent of parental contributions to the support of their children. Child support policy explicitly calls for sharing various child expenses in the case of shared placement. Even with sole placement, orders often include obligations covering health insurance and medical costs outside of regular child support payments. This report examines how parents contribute to the costs of their children in shared and mother-sole placement arrangements 6-10 years after divorce, looking beyond the payment of regular child support to encompass sharing of a range of expenses. The report also focuses on mothers’ perceived fairness of these contributions and how perceptions vary by placement and other factors.
Data are from the 2020 Wisconsin Parents Survey, which includes parents in the Wisconsin Court Record Database who began divorce proceedings during 2009-10 and 2013. The survey sample was limited to mothers with sole-mother or shared placement and a child age six or under at the time of divorce. Data are merged with administrative records of child support payments and earnings. We describe child support orders and payments, as well as mothers’ reports of how various kinds of expenses were actually shared between parents over the past year. Additionally, we describe mothers’ characterization of the fairness of both parents’ contributions to the support of their children and explore these responses using quantitative and qualitative approaches.
Regular child support orders are less common, lower, but more consistently paid in shared as compared to sole placement arrangements. Parents also support their children by sharing expenses. Mothers with shared placement report strikingly higher relative contributions from fathers across all six expense categories considered, compared to mothers with sole placement. Shared placement mothers are also more likely to characterize parents’ overall contributions as fair, a difference entirely explained by greater expense-sharing. Mothers who report good or excellent relationships with the other parent also find overall parental contributions to be fairer. The importance of cost-sharing and relationship quality as predictors of fairness was mirrored in the qualitative results: cost-sharing was widely cited by mothers who described overall child support contributions as fair, and absence of or insufficient cost-sharing were widely cited by mothers who described contributions as unfair. Mothers cited noncompliance with legally mandated contributions as well as differences in parents’ views on appropriate expenses in explaining why they found cost-sharing problematic. Qualitative results also highlighted the interplay between cost-sharing and parents’ relationships, where fairness was often explained not only by the level of cost-sharing but by a constructive and supportive approach to handling the details.
An important implication of this work is that the shift to shared placement, and the associated shift towards more informal ways of meeting financial obligations to children, makes it harder to assess whether systems are working as intended. Likewise, parents’ ability to work together constructively is particularly important in navigating obligations that are less standardized than regular support payments. This work points to the importance of supports to help parents establish, manage, enforce, and revise expense-sharing arrangements in accordance with their particular circumstances, in ways that meet children’s needs and support parents’ ability to co-parent constructively. Research could inform potential remedies by gathering systematic input from parents about supportive strategies that they would find useful.