HIGH PRICE FOR MICHIGAN'S PAYING PARENT: Child support cost is an ambush for some
BY WENDY WENDLAND- BOWYER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
February 10, 2004
Ken Hymes loves his only child, Kristyn, visiting her and paying child support regularly.
But Hymes, an unemployed Redford Township electrician, is currently about $4,000 behind on support.
The cause? Court records show an order raising his child support payment was issued in January 2002 dating back retroactively to December 1999 -- which was roughly when his ex-girlfriend asked for an increase that took more than 2 years to grant.
Hymes said he is trying to pay down the arrearage, but with an annual 8-percent surcharge, he's not making much progress.
"I was never behind. I was always current on child support and then, overnight, I had an arrearage and am being hit with this surcharge," said Hymes, 48, whose daughter is now 15.
While he knew about the request, he said he wasn't aware it would be retroactive. Michigan parents owe more than $7 billion in past due child support, the third-worst record in the country. The stories of how they get behind vary, but some say the situation is made worse by the state's 8-percent interest, or surcharge, added to past due support.
A Senate committee will hear testimony today on a package of 11 bills aimed at changing the Friend of the Court. The bills would reduce the interest rate, stop it from being compounded annually and let judges waive it in certain situations.
"Seven billion -- that is just an awful lot of money. If we had that going to kids and families, it would certainly be a blessing to them," said Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood, chairman of the Senate Families and Human Services Committee.
Hardiman said his committee could schedule a second hearing if necessary. A final vote is likely several weeks away.
Federal numbers show most Michigan parents who are behind on child support have an annual reported income of less than $10,000. While some may be hiding their earnings, others fall behind when they are sent to prison and the support order is not adjusted, or by certain circumstances created in current law.
For example, if a woman never tells a man that he is the father of her child and then she files for support within 6 years of the child's birth, the man could be ordered to pay support dating back 6 years. If the couple are not married, he could also be liable for hospital and pregnancy-related medical costs, creating an instant arrearage of thousands of dollars.
Bills in the package would change this.
One would make unmarried couples share medical costs related to the pregnancy, based on each's ability to pay.
Another bill states that back child support could only be collected dating to the date the paternity complaint was filed.
"There has to be a time limit here for when someone can go back and retroactively access child support," said Rep. Jim Koetje, R-Walker,that bill's sponsor.
Another bill would reduce the surcharge, or interest, imposed on past due support from 8 percent to 4 percent. It would also give judges freedom to waive it in some circumstances.
Raymond Smith of Clinton Township said that's a great idea.
Smith said he came home from work one day to find a letter telling him he had fathered a son to a woman he had a brief relationship with 13 years earlier. The note was a shock, he said, and so was the bill.
"Thirteen years had gone by. I mean, I have gotten married and had my own kids. She never once tried to contact me. I never had any knowledge," said Smith, now 39. "Then 13 years later here comes this notice in the mail."
Smith said he was ordered to pay about $200 a week dating back roughly three years ago, creating an instant $5,000 arrearage.
Smith said he's current on his weekly payments, but can only afford to pay the minimum on the arrearage. Because the 8 percent interest is added to the past due amount annually, Smith said his arrearage is still about $5,000 some three years later.
Contact WENDY WENDLAND-BOWYER at firstname.lastname@example.org
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