Advocates Successfully Lobby the DC Council to Increase the Self-Support Reserve for Child Support Obligors
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Tianna TerryOn June 16, 2009, the DC Council passed emergency legislation, introduced by Councilmember Phil Mendelson, to increase the “self-support reserve” for noncustodial parents who are court-ordered to pay child support.  Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the bill on July 6, 2009.  This legislation is essential to preserving a provision of the District’s child support law that ensures that child support orders are fair.

The self-support reserve is the amount of annual income that child support obligors can set aside to meet their personal subsistence needs.  This amount is subtracted from the obligor’s income before the child support obligation is determined.  In the District, the self-support reserve is 133% of the annual federal poverty guideline for a single individual, which is $14,404 for 2009 (the current federal poverty level for a household of one is $10,830).  If a noncustodial parent earns less than the self-support reserve amount, the judge calculates the parent’s child support obligation on a case-by-case basis rather than using the standard formula.  Several states, including New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon, have similar laws.  The self-support reserve is critical to ensuring that child support obligors can both financially support their children and pay for their most basic needs. 

DC child support law clearly mandates that the self-support reserve must be updated every two years by publishing the new amount in the DC Register.  The reserve amount should have been updated by April 1, 2009.  Nevertheless, because the statute did not indicate which government body was responsible for updating the reserve amount, the task went undone for three months. 

The self-support reserve was finally updated on July 6, 2009 because advocates persistently lobbied DC government officials.  The advocacy effort was led by the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, with support from Legal Aid and Bread for the City.  Advocates initially tried to persuade the DC Child Support Services Division (CSSD), the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), and the Mayor’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs to simply publish the new self-support reserve amount in the DC Register and update the online Child Support Guideline Calculator (which is maintained by CSSD).  However, these attempts failed.  CSSD insisted that new legislation was necessary to update the reserve amount, and the Mayor’s Office contended that the District’s Child Support Guideline Commission needed to be reconvened to review the matter.  Advocates then turned their lobbying efforts to the DC Council, and were ultimately successful.

While this tug-of-war ensued, child support orders were being calculated incorrectly at DC Superior Court everyday because the online Child Support Guideline Calculator that the Court uses included the old self-support reserve figure.  Estimates by DC Appleseed indicate that DC Superior Court enters more than 200 child support orders each month. 

Although noncustodial parents at various income levels were negatively impacted by the District’s failure to update the self-support reserve, those living in poverty were especially harmed.  The updated self-support reserve amount ($14,404) is $2,022 more than the old amount ($12,382).  This increase is particularly significant in these difficult economic times. 

The District’s failure to update the self-support reserve resulted in child support orders being entered that low-income obligors could not afford to pay.  The obligors who managed to pay these inflated child support orders have incurred substantial hardship to do so.  Those who failed to make the court-ordered payments have accumulated debt.  Failure to pay this debt carries significant consequences, including driver’s license suspension, seizure of income tax refunds and bank account funds, and incarceration. 

The emergency legislation passed by the DC Council requires the DC Child Support Services Division to ensure that all child support orders entered on or after April 1, 2009 are modified appropriately.  Legal Aid and other child support advocates will make every effort to make sure that this happens. 

For more information about advocates’ efforts to update the self-support reserve, read the testimony that Legal Aid submitted to the DC Council about the issue.

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