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Child support changes article: "Divorce: Ordeal or New Deal"

The Daily Telegraph
29 October 2007

Divorce: ordeal or new deal?
By Brad Watts and Michelle Cazzulino

They promised themselves it wouldn't get ugly. After all, the fact they were divorcing didn't mean they couldn't still be civilised.

That was before his shifts at work were cut back and he got behind on his child-support payments.

She got frustrated, because it wasn't like she could ring up the school and say, "Listen, I can't pay the fees because my ex-husband's boss is a deadbeat".

That made him livid because it was all right for her - she got the house and the kids and he got a bed-sit and a nagging ex-wife whose right hand was always in his wallet.

And when she heard that she was furious, because he should try getting by on the crumbs he threw her every month - which, for the record, barely covered the cost of the earplugs she had to buy to block out the sound of his whining.

And all of a sudden their conversations started ENDING LIKE THIS and despite themselves, their divorce got ugly anyway.

It remains to be seen whether the situation will change after July 2008, when child support payments will no longer be calculated as a percentage of the income from the non-custodial parent and will be based on the combined income of both parents. The new formula will also take into account the amount of time each parent has custody of the children.

This week, the Federal Government will order divorcees in NSW, Queensland and the ACT to review their details and notify officials if their income has changed or new children need to be included.

While the system is billed as a fairer way of calculating payments, it has had the unforseen effect of annoying single mothers' groups and single fathers' groups alike.

"What the Government has done, in typical fashion, is give the appearance of giving with one hand, while taking with the other," Men's Rights Agency spokesman Sue Price said.

"It's not going to solve the problem for anybody - it still creates a divide between parents when you have child support payments assessed on how much time each parent spends with the child."

Co-ordinator of single parent agency Birthright's Debbie Sergeant said the regime was weighted towards separated fathers, especially those on high incomes.

"It makes things more difficult for the mothers - it's great for the dads," she said.

Mother-of-four Michelle Wingett is among those who believe they will be heavily short-changed.

She is finding it difficult to make ends meet after her payments were reduced from $36,000 to about $24,000 a year as a result of the first phase of the changes.

"I work myself - I have a mortgage - but I don't know how I'm going to dig myself out of this position," she said.

"The new system is a shocker - the deductions are only for very wealthy men who earn over $130,000 - they are the primary beneficiaries of the scheme."

The National Council of Single Mothers believes children will be the biggest losers.

"We've always challenged the logic of reducing financial support to households at the highest risk of poverty - children will have less financial opportunity," spokeswoman Elspeth McInnes said.

Lone Fathers' Association president Barry Williams said the new formula, which will allow about 60 per cent of non-custodial parents to pay less, has been designed to stop parents rorting the system and "bleeding" ex-partners for money.

Kathleen Swinbourne from the Sole Parents' Union disagreed. "The policy stinks," she said.

"It's been designed to appease disgruntled dads' groups and it's not even doing that. If it was properly implemented and properly sold, it could be good, however, it's being discussed as 'Fathers are getting a reduction in their child support as a reward for seeing their kids'.

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