Jill Hamburg Coplan What do child-support payments have to do with small business? At first glance, not much. But when a reader wrote to vent her frustration at not receiving child support owed for her two school-age children, I realized she was the victim of a widespread problem that afflicts business owners.
"There is no respite when you have insufficient help from an ex-spouse," says the Takoma Park (Md.), business owner, who asked not to be named. "It is an understatement to say that running a business and being a single parent is no easy feat."
THE EX FILES. Some research revealed a virtual epidemic of past-due payments -- a trend that piles additional stresses on divorced entrepreneurs. The cost to business owners can be quantified in lost work hours -- few entrepreneurs have time to spend in lawyers' offices or plodding through the court system attempting to get their due. But the toll is emotional as well. Indeed, custodial parents can't help but worry about their children's welfare when payments aren't timely and visits are few and far between.
About $60 billion in child support is outstanding in the U.S. today, according to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. The Health & Human Services Dept. (HHS) and its affiliated agencies did manage to collect $18 billion during 2000 (partly by seizing the income tax refunds of deadbeat parents -- mostly dads). But 80% of the open cases, involving about 19 million families, are still unresolved, despite harsh, new penalties that include driver's license revocation, passport denial, and a program that permits bank accounts to be frozen and seized.
STRETCHED TOO THIN. "The government systems got overwhelmed when the divorce rate skyrocketed in the '70s, and they never staffed up to capacity," says Casey Hoffman, a former Texas assistant attorney general who was responsible for the state's child-support agency and now runs a private investigative service, SupportKids.com.
If your ex is delinquent, you have three options:
The first is taking your case to family court, which may be either a state or county entity, depending on where you live. The main advantage to this course of action is that it's free. Unfortunately, judging by recent statistics, your chances of collecting are only about 1 in 5.
A parent can also turn to a private attorney for help. This is tempting, especially if it's a complicated case or one that reaches across state borders (you're in one state, the court order for payments is in another, and your ex is in a third). If you do enlist an attorney, experts recommend using a firm with expertise in both family law and locating missing persons -- often the hardest and most time-consuming part of the job.
WHERE TO TURN. Finally, there are a number of private investigative companies that locate delinquent, noncustodial parents and handle the paperwork. In addition to SupportKids.com, two other large private investigators are NationalChildSupport.com and Childsupport.com. For articles with information about these companies -- designed for public education (not lawyers) -- use
the search term "child support" at the American Bar Assn.'s
ABAnet.org. These companies generally operate on a contingency basis (you pay when they collect), with fees typically running to 25% of the sum recovered.
Whichever route you take, statistics indicate that it is worth the effort. Olivia Golden, the HHS assistant secretary for children and families who coordinates a nationwide enforcement network, says: "Research has shown a child's well-being and life chances are improved with regular, adequate child support -- both financial and emotional." The hard part is getting it. Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan