Made to Pay

The question as to why parents ordered to pay child support – generally the fathers – fail to do so is a book that has yet to be written.

The New York Times recently featured an article on the top deadbeat dad in the USA, a dubious distinction if there ever was one.

At first Lisa Sand wanted to see her ex-husband in prison. He had skipped out on making child support payments, missing court dates in Nassau County Family Court before leaving New York and eventually fleeing the country altogether. A fugitive for almost 20 years, he owed Ms. Sand and their two children $1 million.

But when federal authorities arrested the man, Robert D. Sand, this month as he exited a plane that landed in Los Angeles by way of the Philippines, Ms. Sand confronted for the first time the odd tension that complicates child support enforcement everywhere: The courts could finally send Mr. Sand to prison, but then how would he ever pay her back?

Well, I don’t have any cases where a father owes that much money, but anyone in the field has encountered fathers who simply refuse to pay child support. And, it’s not always a question of not being able to pay.

Many of them have the means to pay but openly scoff at the law, exploiting an enforcement system that is mostly filled with poor people who could not pay child support if they wanted to, and for whom the prospect of jail remains an empty threat.

There we have it again, that seemingly uncontrollable urge to take revenge on the ex-spouse by harming the children.

In Israel, you can’t just lock someone in jail for a number of years due to failure to pay child support. The bailiff’s office can issue an order to arrest someone for a number of days until payment is made, but they may not be held indefinitely.

What I really don’t get is those fathers who tell me that they can’t pay the amount the courts have awarded, actually name the number they would be prepared to pay if only someone to listen to them, but then fail to even make that minimal payment in order to help the kids and bring the debt down. It’s as if they are stuck in a place in which they are not going to do what they themselves claim they would do  as long as “the system” isn’t listening to them.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the level of child support is an incredibly tough ruling to make;  there is rarely enough money to go around, particularly in a city such as Jerusalem which doesn’t feature many high-earners. Many of us in the field console our clients by saying that for the person paying child support it’s always too high, and for the person with the kids receiving the child support, it’s always too low. And, they’re both right.

The question posed by the article is a good one: to what extent do the sanctions help the children, or the mother owed the money?

“If it was five years ago, I’d want to see him rot away in jail,” Ms. Sand said. “Now I don’t care for that. I want to see him work, and pay his debt to me and my children.”

My experience with the Israeli system that the threat of sitting in jail for a few days generally does compel the debtor to come up with some money. In that sense, it seems more reasonable than a system that will lock people up for longer periods of time.

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