The History of Child Support


  • Author Jim Knight
  • Published June 18, 2010
  • Word count 642

"A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there's less of you"

                               - Margaret Atwood, Booker-winning Canadian author and poet.

Often, the victim who hurts the most in a divorce is the child. The proper upbringing of a child, especially one who comes from a broken home, is of paramount importance for the betterment of society as a whole. Hence, it's crucial that every developed nation has comprehensive child support legislation and the will to enforce it.

Child support is the court-ordered support paid by one spouse to the other who has custody of the children after the parents are separated. The history of child support in the US can be traced back to the Poor Laws of 17th century Elizabethan England. These laws were intended to allow parishes or local communities to recover their costs of keeping people out of destitution from the relatives of those people. The laws didn't allow those people themselves to claim from their relatives. In other words, the father only had a non-enforceable moral duty to support his children.

In the 19th century, it was felt that the US legal system needed laws to enforce a father's obligation to support his offspring, and courts began to rule likewise. One of the earliest American support cases was Stanton vs. Willson, decided by the Supreme Court of Connecticut in 1808, where the court allowed Eunice Stanton to recover support from her first husband on behalf of her deceased second husband. At that time two of Eunice's children had been awarded to her by a custody decree, and the third had fled from her ex-husband because of fears of abuse. The court clearly stated in this case that the children’s father was legally bound "to protect, educate, and maintain their legitimate children."

Once the courts legally established the obligation to financially provide for children, there were many support claims brought about by third parties who had provided board, clothing, or food to impoverished single mothers and their children and who were willing to recover these costs from the non-supporting father. Soon enough, the courts extended this support doctrine to allow newly divorced women to recover directly from their spouse money they spent in supporting their offspring, conditional to proving that the father was being negligent.

However, the biggest changes to child support laws occurred after World War II. In 1950, the first federal child support enforcement legislation was passed by Congress. It required state welfare agencies to notify concerned law enforcement officials when aid was provided to dependent children who had been abandoned or deserted by a parent. Local and state welfare agencies were empowered by the Social Security Act amendments in 1965 to seek out residential and employment details of the parent who owed child support.

Child support got a shot in the arm in 1975 when Title IV-D of the Social Security Act was signed into law. This law allowed the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a separate division for the collection of child support. With the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, all states were required to develop mandatory income withholding procedures as well as expedited processes for establishing and enforcing support orders. The Family Support Act of 1988 required the courts to use state guidelines when establishing support amounts. The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 made it a federal crime to willfully fail to pay past-due child support payments for a child residing in another state.

The latest development in this field is the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, under which states can apply for grants in the range of $50,000 to develop programs that provide mediation and counseling services. It also allowed for the creation of the New Hires database, which requires all employers to report information about newly hired employees, allowing authorities to keep track of defaulting parents.

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