Child-Support Laws: A Boon for Gold Diggers?

Experts say that flaws in the system punish poor parents and motivate others to have kids for money.

Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images); Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images); Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Just when it seemed Charlie Sheen’s story couldn’t get any more depressing for him, his fans and his family, things have managed to take a turn for the worse. His estranged wife, Brooke Mueller, has been admitted to rehab for drug addiction, something she’s struggled with for years.

Despite the fact that her twin toddlers with Sheen have previously been cared for by his first wife, actress Denise Richards, during some of Mueller’s previous stints in rehab, Mueller has attempted to have the twins removed from Richards’ custody. The reason, Sheen’s lawyers allege, is that the $55,000 a month in child support that Sheen is paying Mueller is her sole source of income.

Sheen’s is not the first headline-grabbing child-support case. After a prolonged court battle, mogul Kirk Kerkorian paid $100,000 a month to support a child who was proven to have been fathered by someone else, while Halle Berry reportedly pays ex-boyfriend Gabriel Aubry $240,000 a year in child support. But the Sheen battle is noteworthy because Mueller’s latest stay in rehab seems to confirm that while she has received more money per month in child support than many Americans earn in a year, not all of that money has been spent to benefit her children. Some money has likely been spent on substances that may be to her, and their, detriment.

The Mueller case highlights challenges the legal system has struggled to address — namely, how do we guarantee that child-support laws ensure children are adequately cared for, but that adults seeking to avoid their financial responsibilities and those attempting to use children for financial gain don’t take advantage of the system? According to experts interviewed by The Root, America’s child-support system is inherently flawed. It punishes poor parents while incentivizing women, and men, to have children with wealthy partners for long-term financial security, not just for their children but for themselves.

Unequal Justice

“No, I don’t think it’s particularly fair, particularly if you’re talking about the men,” said famed divorce attorney Raoul Felder when asked if he thinks the current child-support system is just. Felder’s celebrity clients include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the ex-wives of former New York Knick Patrick Ewing and legendary film director Martin Scorsese. Despite his wealthy clientele, Felder said in an interview with The Root that current child-support laws penalize the less wealthy and powerful. “The man who doesn’t earn much money ends up paying a greater sum that will impact upon his life than someone who is very rich.”

Felder explained that while a noncustodial parent who is a millionaire may barely notice his child-support payments in New York, a noncustodial parent on a low-six-figure salary in one of the world’s most expensive cities will see his or her life severely affected by New York’s rigid child-support code. “They want to show that it’s an even hand to everybody, whether they’re rich or poor, but it’s not.”

Felder was referencing an established formula used to determine child support in New York. According to South Brooklyn Legal Services, the formula is calculated as follows: “After determining each parent’s income, the court adds their incomes together and then multiplies that number by a percentage, depending on the number of children. Those percentages are: 17 percent for one child; 25 percent for two children; 29 percent for three children; 31 percent for four children; no less than 35 percent for five or more children.

“That amount is then divided between the two parents based on the proportion of each parent’s income to the combined parental income. For example, if the noncustodial parent makes $60,000 a year and the custodial parent makes $20,000, the combined income would be $80,000 (the noncustodial parent’s share is 75 percent, and the custodial parent’s is 25 percent of the total).”