I’ve periodically invited readers to write me about family feuds that involve their personal finances.
You certainly don’t want to fight with anyone over money, especially not with your family. Yet when you mix money and family, the fights can cause deep divides and years of resentment. Such is the case of one mother who wrote to me about her relationship with her adult son over child support his father was not paying.
The background: When those payments became $40,000 in arrears, the reader said she decided to take the father to court.
“The judge said if he did not pay up, then she would arrest him,” wrote the woman, who asked not to be identified. “She asked me if I wanted him to go to jail and I said ‘no.’ I needed him to work.”
The issue of non-payment continued over the years. “I don’t know how many times he was in contempt of court,” she wrote.
Failure to pay child support is a big problem nationwide. A report released last year by the Census Bureau showed that in 2011, more than $14 billion in child-support payments to custodial parents were not received. Astoundingly, only 43 percent of the parents got all the money they were due.
“In 2011, the 6.3 million custodial parents who were due child support under the terms of legal awards or informal agreements were due an annual mean average of $6,050, or approximately $500 per month,” the Census report said.
The overwhelming majority of custodial parents were women, with many living in poverty.
In 2012, 26.1 percent of all custodial parents had at some point contacted a child support enforcement office or other government office for child support-related assistance, down from 42.2 percent in 1994, according to the Census Bureau.
The conflict: “What makes me so sad is that my son is very antagonistic toward me for involving the court so much,” she wrote. “I had to do it quite often because the amount owed would build up and it was very difficult to go without the money for very long.”
The mother added: “I did not believe at the time it was appropriate to discuss these kinds of things in detail with the children, only generalities. . . . But I acknowledge the pain my son/children felt growing up in two households with parents who could not get along. I cannot correct anything that happened so many years ago. I love my son very much and want to have a healthy relationship with him. How can I reconcile my actions of the past with what he is carrying in the present?”
I’ve worked with a number of parents, all women, who were reluctant to seek court intervention for child support for fear of what happened to the mother who wrote me. Or they were concerned that whatever civil relations they did have with their ex would deteriorate if courts became involved. Sometimes they were right. Things got ugly when they pursued formal child support agreements.
One thing everyone involved in child support cases should keep in mind — parents and especially the courts — the more contact a child has with the noncustodial parent, the more likely full child support payments are made, the Census report found.
The bottom line: If you’re in a fight with an ex over child support, you shouldn’t involve the children. And yet we know, even in situations where the parents try to keep their fiscal issues and conflicts off to the side, the kids will sense the tension. They are often damaged by the battles. And sometimes they pick sides.
But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for the money you need to support your children, whether you are the father or mother. You shouldn’t feel guilty for doing what you needed to do to provide for your child’s basic needs.
Despite your best efforts, perhaps your frustration wasn’t kept in check. If you didn’t get family counseling then, get it now. You and your son should talk things out with a professional. He’s hurt and needs help.
Children may not understand the need for court intervention to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. However, you can expect them to have a better understanding of why you needed to pursue child support.
If you are having a financial conflict with a family member, tell me your story. I may be able to help. Send your story to email@example.com. Put “Family Feud” in the subject line, and be sure to include your full name, city and state.
Write Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.