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Every Last Penny...

By Shirley Eileen Fitzgerald, RN

Long ago it was rumored among those not in the legal profession that copper wire was invented by two attorneys fighting over a penny. While monetary struggles continue among members of the legal profession to this day, I would like to caution you about the dangers of actually getting every last penny to which children may be entitled under the ORS Chapter 137, commonly known as the Oregon Child support guidelines.

I recently became aware of a case where the custodial mother was unable to obtain regular child support checks despite regular twice monthly garnishments of her former husband's wages. Child support had been reduced by nearly 25 % at the non-custodial father's request (despite evidence that he had voluntarily reduced his income) during the summer following a lengthy hearing in a courtroom with malfunctioning air conditioning. Determined to establish child support in accordance with the ORS Guidelines, the judge issued a seemingly arbitrary ruling as to the income of each parent and then computed child support to the penny! $939.27!!

Once lowered, the non-custodial father continued to refuse to pay child support and future collections were referred to the local Support Enforcement Division. The child support checks continued to be irregular and it was finally determined that it was that one last penny that was the problem.

It seems the State Department of Human Resources would request an initial garnishment each month in the amount of $469.64, and then a second garnishment of an equal amount. The second garnishment then resulted in an overpayment in the amount of one penny, halted garnishments for the subsequent month and prevented the State from releasing the funds already collected until the Mom could personally make contact with her caseworker each month and get a "human" override of the computer's overpayment decision. After 3 months of calls, threats from creditors, utilities, etc., for late payments, Mom again attempted to resolve this one penny overpayment dilemma. By now the overpayment amounted to three pennies and more than a month's child support was still being withheld. Mom offered to reduce the child support by one penny per month, but since it was determined strictly by the guidelines, this would have taken another $1000 retainer for legal services and another day in court as Mom is not permitted to voluntarily reduce the support amount by even one penny per month and the non-custodial father (who seems to be enjoying all this) will simply not pay even one additional penny in child support. More suggested filing a satisfaction of judgment for $0.12 annually, but was advised that the State's computers would count this as an additional overpayment it seems and then there would be a $0.15 overpayment which would surely hold up the child support payments. The only solution the support enforcement worker could offer was for the State to issue monthly refund checks to the non-custodial father in the amount of exactly one penny at a cost to the taxpayers of more than $25.00 each.

In summary one may wonder how it could possibly be in the best interests of the children for Mom to be faced with constant financial distress, late charges, etc., because although the garnishment for child support is automatic and at regular intervals, the payments continue to be delayed by seemingly endless red tape and that one last penny. Based upon my observations in this case, I would strongly encourage judges and attorneys for all parties to pay particular attention to the realities of actually "getting every last penny" and truly consider the best interests of the children before accepting any child support order for an uneven number of pennies.

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