A mother of five was outraged last week after the Fresno County Superior Court ordered her to pay her ex-husband nearly $500 in child support monthly – most of which will go toward paying back the state for his state aid.
Keri Cook works full-time as a police dispatcher for the State Center Community College District. She shares custody of three of her children – ages 11, 13 and 15 – with her ex-husband, Joshua Moore. The children stay with their father three days a week. According to court documents, the couple divorced in 2008.
On July 26, Commissioner Heather M. Jones ordered Cook to pay Moore $475 per month. Moore will keep $50, while $425 will go to the state in reimbursement for some of the undisclosed public assistance Moore receives. Jones actually reduced the payment from more than $500 to $475 – something one family law expert said is rare. The courts typically stick to a figure pumped out by a mathematical formula to determine how much either parent owes in terms of child support.
However, both Cook and Moore agree that even the reduced payment could cause hardship for her large family. The result is not something either of the parents sought. In fact, the case against Cook was brought by Fresno County, which is compelled by the state to pursue support in all cases where one parent receives government aid.
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“It’s easier to come after me than it is to deal with him,” Cook said in an interview. “Why should I have to support my children while they’re at his house?”
Moore said he can’t work because of medical reasons that “are nobody’s business,” and the state assistance he receives goes mainly to support his children.
“It keeps my nose just above water,” Moore said.
He added that thousands of men are asked to pay the same support every day.
Raed Nijmeddin, chief counsel for the Fresno County Department of Child Support Services, said he could not comment on any specific case, but he explained how the system works in general.
“It’s the state’s position that we don’t want children to go hungry,” Nijmeddin said.
People in financial trouble often seek assistance through social services, Nijmeddin said. People who get state aid must forfeit their right to court-ordered child support, which is paid instead to the state. Part of the child support department’s job is to pursue that support.
Both parents must then submit records of their net income. Those figures are plugged into the state’s calculator, as well as the number of children and the time spent with each parent. These are the primary factors, Nijmeddin said, but the formula also takes things like health insurance and whether a parent is on mandatory retirement into account.
The formula is gender-neutral, Nijmeddin added. It is not uncommon for a parent to pay the other even though they split custody.
He offered this hypothetical example: “Say my ex-wife makes $100,000 and I make $50,000, and I visit the children on alternating weekends. She’ll probably still have to pay me for those weekends.”
“The state does not want children to feast in one home, and famine in another,” he continued. “The purpose of child support is to equalize the standard of living in both homes.”
John McDaniel, an attorney at Helon & Manfredo LLP with 40 years of family law experience, agreed with Nijmeddin’s summation of the law.
“You take care of your kids before you pay your bills,” McDaniel said. “That’s the intent of our Legislature. Children should benefit from a shared standard of living between two households.”
He added that, in his experience, cases where the mother pays the father are not uncommon – just not the majority.
“The law is gender-neutral,” McDaniel said. “But in reality, more moms have custody. You’re more likely to see absent dads, and it’s more likely that mom is on public assistance.”
McDaniel said current child support policies were passed by California legislators in 1992. Before the uniform rules, lawyers and litigants were frustrated by vastly different child support judgments from county to county – and sometimes from courtroom to courtroom.
The system, however, is quite rigid, McDaniel said. Judges have little discretion to deviate from the number cranked out by the system. Doing so requires the judge to submit written evidence.
In Cook’s case, the commissioner reduced her monthly payments. The court report notes: “The guideline amount would cause a hardship. The court will deviate from the guideline amount, finding it is in the best interest of the child.”
The guideline amount was not given in the court documents, but Moore said it was more than $500.
Cook also has to pay an additional $25 per month to cover back payments to the state for aid that had gone to her ex-husband. As with all child support cases, the terms are subject to change should the parents’ employment situations change.
“It’s going to be a strain,” Cook said. “I’ve got five kids with a lot going on. It’s going to hurt.”