(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.
"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)."
Cathy Middleton-Lewis, an attorney specializing in child-support cases, expressed similar concerns regarding rigid enforcement that penalizes poorer parents. When asked what she most wanted Americans to know about the current child-support system, Middleton-Lewis told The Root, "In my opinion it's the biggest economic problem facing single parents today — as big as the Recession is — and yet not a lot of information is out there on how to deal with it." She highlighted a number of problems in the broken system. While Felder focused on New York's child-support calculation formula, Middleton-Lewis cited the Bradley Amendment.
The federal amendment was implemented in 1986 to help custodial parents more easily collect back child support from a delinquent ex. While there have been Bradley success stories, it is also blamed for helping to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. The amount of overdue support owed is virtually impossible to decrease or reset for any reason. As a testament to the draconian enforcement of the policy, prisoner of war Bobby Sherrill was arrested the night after his return to America for failure to pay child support during his captivity in Iraq. Similarly, Clarence Brandley, who was wrongfully convicted of a racially charged murder in Texas and eventually released after years on death row, discovered that he owed $50,000 in back child support that had accrued during his time in prison.
"I had a case like that in Brooklyn where my client fell gravely ill and was hospitalized, and the arrears accrued," said Middleton-Lewis. According to Middleton-Lewis, before the Bradley Amendment, decisions for handling such cases were left to the discretion of a judge.
But also exacerbating the system are adults who try to abuse it. When asked if she believes there are people who have children for financial reasons, Middleton-Lewis replied, "The reality is yes — unequivocally, yes." Middleton-Lewis, the author of a book ironically titled Girl Get That Child Support: Seeking Child Support Doesn't Make You a Gold Digger, added that this type of behavior is not limited to the 1 percent. "In certain distressed communities, someone working for the NYPD or New York Transit is a moneyed person." She explained that she has heard of individuals in these professions being sought out as fathers because their financial situation is viewed as stable.
Child Support Versus Parental Support
Felder agreed with Middleton-Lewis that there are people who have children with wealthier individuals for financial reasons. "I represent a woman who had kids by two separate actors. It's how she supports herself," he said. But unlike Middleton-Lewis, Felder doesn't consider it an ethical issue but a philosophical one. "It's absolutely true that if you have a baby by an athlete or a celebrity, you can pretty much hit a homerun as far as support is concerned."
When asked if he thinks having a child for financial reasons is "right," he replied, "I don't know what 'right' is. That's a question you and I should talk about over a cup of tea. Who knows?" Later he added, "It's human nature. It's like [the song lyric from the musical] Evita, 'I want a little bit of excess.' So what? A little bit of excess doesn't hurt anyone." He concluded that celebrities can afford it. "They get paid in telephone numbers."
One of Felder's objections to restrictions on how a custodial parent can spend income designated as child support isn't a legal one but a moral one. "Why should he [the child] feel like living with the father is like the lap of luxury and going to the mother is like being with a poor relative?" But he went on to explain that his larger objection is that trying to supervise how an adult spends money would constitute a headache for the parents, the lawyers and the court.
To his point, New York State does not permit a receipt-oversight process in child-support proceedings. "Because the law [in New York] says you can't demand an accounting of the money once you get money for child support unless you can show gross negligence, like a kid has no sneakers or holes in his shoes, but generally a mother gets the money, and she can do whatever she wants with it."
Which is precisely what irks many, including Middleton-Lewis. While she represents women who are just trying to receive enough support to care for their children, the media are filled with stories of women and men receiving tens of thousands of dollars a month for a child, money that few believe is being spent on the child alone.
She said that no parent needs tens of thousands of dollars a month to care for a child. "You know there is no scenario of child rearing you can dream of — even the most upscale child — that would require the utilization of $40,000 a month for the support of the child," she said. "No child eats that much. No private school charges $40,000 a month. You've got to be realistic as to what a child actually needs."
Fixing a Broken System
Middleton-Lewis noted that there are states that require an accounting of child-support funds. In Georgia, famed African-American attorney Willie Gary had his $336,000-a-year child-support payments to the mother of his twins lowered to $60,000 after an auditing of her financial records discovered that she used the payments to renovate her home, pay for the education of a child that was not his and, according to the judge, refused to seek employment despite holding a college degree and being in good health.
Middleton-Lewis said, "I think there needs to be some sort of cap on how high the support can actually go when you're dealing with very wealthy parents." She added, however, that even a system of caps, which would be an improvement on the current one, would still benefit from judicial discretion. For instance, if a child has special needs requiring medical care, in that instance a cap would need to be revisited or raised.
Felder opposes caps. But surprisingly, Destiny, a Texas-based single mother of a 6-year-old boy, supports them (she asked that her last name not be used). She struggles financially because her son's father, whose monthly support order is $237, is thousands of dollars behind in child support. Without specifying a number, she said that a cap would make sense at a certain point.
"Yeah, I think there are people who have babies by athletes to trap them or keep them and have this lump sum of child support coming in." But, she added with emphasis, "There are single moms out there really struggling to make ends meet and not trying to abuse the system but who have a real focus on meeting the needs of their kids, not to hurt the man, but who are just really trying to provide for the child."
Destiny agreed with both Felder and Middleton-Lewis on one thing, though: The wealthy have an advantage in the current system. She explained that just to try to get her child-support order enforced required legal counsel. The cheapest attorney she could find cost $1,500.
Calling the child-support system "an epic failure," she said that parents like her — who aren't famous and don't have a child by someone famous — are essentially forgotten by the judicial system and ignored by the media and public officials. When asked what advice she would give to other women in her shoes, she said, "Do the best with what you've got, and keep seeking justice. Don't give up."
Middleton-Lewis advised parents to seek counsel from someone specializing in child-support law. Middleton-Lewis, currently representing a cast member of VH1's Black Ink Crew, said if you can't afford a lawyer, there are resources available to help.
When asked for his solution for deterring adults, specifically so-called gold diggers, from abusing the child-support system, Felder said simply, "You know, a man could use a little self-control and caution if he's dating a woman and not allow this to happen."
Or perhaps he could be more selective about whom he chooses to date and marry. According to reports, Sheen offered to double the child support his first wife, Denise Richards, is receiving, since she is caring for his two boys with Mueller. Richards allegedly declined the offer, saying that she already receives more than enough.
Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.