Arizona’s Proposed Child Outcome Based Support Guidelines

At first blush, it might appear to make perfect sense: A child of divorce should have the same standard of living in both parents’ households. No more visiting wealthy Dad on the weekends, then going home to economically struggling Mom during the week, for instance. This would provide balance and stability for the child, who has experienced enough uncertainty already.

In June 2010, the Arizona Judicial Council tentatively approved the Child Outcome Based Support (COBS) model, which addresses this concern by roughly equalizing the incomes of both households. The Arizona Supreme Court has not yet given the guidelines final approval.

Although the proposed change would solve some issues, the problems it brings up make it an undesirable choice. The COBS model does not consider how much it actually costs parents to raise a child, and it could encourage negative behavior from the parent who receives the child support.

Income Shares Model vs. Child Outcome Based Support (COBS) Model

Historically, child support in Arizona and other states has been based on the amount of money it takes to raise a child. The child support that the noncustodial parent pays also factors in income, the number of children and the amount of parenting time. The parents’ monetary contributions are a proportional share of the total.

Arizona’s Income Shares model was devised by the Child Support Guidelines Project of the National Center for State Courts. The aim of this child support model is to ensure that the same amount is spent on the child as if the parents were still together.

The COBS model, on the other hand, seeks to approximately balance the economic standing of each household. Often this will mean quite large support payments from the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent. When the custodial parent earns more than the noncustodial parent, child support would still be paid, but not as much, under the COBS model.

In most cases, when Arizona parents are divorced or never married, the mother is the custodial parent. The custodial parent is the person who has more parenting time with the child. Also in most opposite-sex relationships, it is the father who is the higher earner of the two.

With a switch from the Income Shares model to the COBS model, many fathers will be forced to pay a good deal more than they are paying now. In this uncertain economy, when more and more noncustodial parents are forced to ask the court to lower their child support payments, increased payments are a particularly difficult burden to bear.

History of Proposed COBS Guidelines

During the winter of 2008, Ira Mark Ellman and Tara O’Toole Ellman published a paper called “The Theory of Child Support” in the Harvard Journal on Legislation. The paper argued that current Income Shares models do not fulfill the purposes of “protecting the child’s well-being, ensuring that both parents contribute to the child’s support and protecting the child from a living standard that is grossly disparate.”

The paper proposed that raising the custodial household’s income above a certain level would raise the child’s well-being accordingly.

Professor Ira Ellman teaches law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and is a member of the Arizona Child Support Guidelines Review Committee. He was appointed to this position by the Arizona Supreme Court, which is the body that has the power to implement the COBS support model.

The COBS model aligns with the American Law Institute’s ideas on how child support should be distributed, although most states follow the Income Shares model. The Arizona Supreme Court has evaluated the COBS model and has tentatively approved it.

What Critics Say

Critics, including scholars and bloggers, argue that the COBS model promotes divorce by offering the lesser-earning custodial parent a big monthly payment. The child support replaces alimony, elevating the whole household rather than just providing for the child. This also brings tax disadvantages for the noncustodial parent, because true alimony is tax deductible for the payor, while child support is not.

Other critics put forth the possibility that the COBS model will encourage parents to drag out custody battles, basing them on money rather than the children’s best interests. The custodial parent could receive quite a bit of money if the noncustodial parent earns significantly more.

Finally, COBS could provide an incentive for a lower-income custodial parent not to work, especially when the noncustodial parent is a very high earner. The less the custodial parent earns, the more the noncustodial parent must pay to make up for the difference.

Speak With an Attorney

These new COBS guidelines will go into effect January 1, 2011, unless the Arizona Supreme Court decides not to implement them.

If you have questions about your current or potential obligations to pay child support, or if you need information about the levels of child support for which you are eligible, contact a family law attorney for more information.