The deadbeat father who spends his earnings on fancy cars and expensive dinners while neglecting child-support payments will face stiff fines and possible suspension of his business or professional license under sweeping legislation signed into law Friday by Gov. Pete Wilson.
Designed to root out one of the causes of rising poverty among women and children, the legislation removes legal obstacles to enforcement that have allowed California parents to get away with paying less in child support than parents in most other states. It also gives district attorneys new tools to discipline neglectful parents.
“These long-overdue reforms will help reinforce our emphasis on the obligation on families for supporting children,” said Wilson, who took time out from budget negotiations to sign the measure.
Wilson said the new law eventually would reduce state costs and “general dependence on welfare” by forcing more parents to keep up with their child-support obligations. Officials estimate that unpaid child support in California amounts to $2 billion annually.
The new law applies equally to men and women, but state figures show that the vast majority of absent parents are men.
Passed unanimously by the Assembly and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate, the omnibus legislation combined several bills that had been introduced as separate measures by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), Assemblymen Sal Cannella (D-Modesto) and Terry Friedman (D-Los Angeles), and Assemblywomen Jackie Speier (D-S. San Francisco) and Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley).
The major opposition to the legislation came from Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), who thought the measure was pushed through too quickly. Calderon, who recently went through a divorce, said lawmakers did not give enough weight to the impact the legislation will have on divorced parents and their children.
Key among the new law’s provisions is one proposed by Hart that will allow the assessment of steep civil penalties against any parent who fails to make payments for an entire year. The penalties could reach a maximum of 72% of the unpaid child support.
Equally significant is Speier’s measure preventing state agencies from issuing or renewing the business or professional licenses of parents who are more than a month late in child-support payments. The new law, however, makes provisions for hearings before a license is lifted and allows the parent to work out a payment plan that could forestall the action against the license.
To increase child-support awards, the law will stop California divorce courts from granting absent parents a 20% reduction in their payments when they agree to keep their children at least 10% of the time. The 10% rule has been used for years by many courts in the state and more recently became a formal guideline adopted by the Judicial Council of California.
Calling the guideline a legal obstacle to higher child-support payments, Hart said California is the only state that uses it.
Another provision would authorize the state’s Parent Locater Service to have access to public utility records to track down parents who owe child support.