Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Does Joint Legal Custody Engage Never-Married Fathers in Financial Support for Children?

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 10:15 AM
Merrick I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Daniel R. Meyer and Yiyu Chen, University of Wisconsin - Madison
Children who live with only one parent are at high risk of poverty and may lose the emotional support of their nonresident parent. Child support enforcement has been expanded to affect poverty, and several policies attempt to increase the involvement of nonresident parents. One of these policies, presumptive joint legal custody, in effect since 2000 in Wisconsin, gives noncustodial parents some decision-making power over child-rearing. The proportion of nonmarital cases in court who have awards of joint legal custody rose from 23% to around 70% after the policy change. This study explores whether joint legal custody also engages unwed fathers in financial support, comparing those with joint legal custody to those without in various periods, including  before (1997-8) and after the reform (2003-09). We hypothesize that parents who are granted joint legal custody would be more involved and thus more likely to pay support.

Data on unmarried parents come from the Wisconsin Court Record Data (WCRD), a probabilistic sample of court cases involving minor children in 21 Wisconsin counties. Noncustodial parents with joint legal custody were more economically advantaged than average unmarried parents: in 1997-98 their average annual earnings were $29,000 and statistically higher than the overall average by $12,000 (2013 dollars). They paid higher child support in the first year and were more likely to obtain visitation. These patterns suggest that a positive selection of parents into joint legal custody, and therefore, warrant adjustments of the pre-treatment differences. We first estimate OLS models for child support payments and compliance, comparing parents with and without joint legal custody and including economic and demographic controls. We then conduct propensity score matching (PSM) to examine the effect among similar parents. Finally, we carry out a number of sensitivity tests such as including more recent periods and modeling longitudinal data on child support payments.

We estimate a significant increase in payments by around $400 a year in both the cross-sectional and longitudinal regressions. However, the PSM models, which are a more rigorous test, suggest that joint legal custody is not associated with higher child support payments or compliance. Based on the results of several sensitivity tests, we conclude that joint legal custody has not been found to be associated with an increase in support payments in the first year. In our view, this does not mean joint legal custody should be discouraged, as formal child support payments are only one way that noncustodial parents can contribute to their children’s wellbeing. However, our results can only be generalized to never-married parents in a single state, so research on divorced parents or other areas would be useful. We also call for further research into the effects of joint legal custody on longer-term child support payments and other aspects of child wellbeing, as well as how joint legal custody is exercised when parents actually make decisions for their children.