Court Says Unemployed Parents Can't Shirk Child Support

Calling financial support of children a "fundamental parental obligation," the California Supreme Court decided Feb. 2 that so-called deadbeat parents can be thrown in jail for failing to get jobs to make child-support payments.

"Children are dependent on their parents for the necessities of life," Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the court, "and it is essential to the public welfare that parents provide support."

Before the ruling, only parents who had an income and refused to pay support were jailed. Lawyers say that a significant number of parents who were ordered to make payments to their children - perhaps 20 percent - fail to make them because they refuse to work. "We're ecstatic," says James Fullmer, Riverside County supervising deputy district attorney. "This will force those individuals who absolutely refuse to do anything to [work]. And those are probably the most frustrating cases for us and the custodial parents."

In reaching its new holding, the state Supreme Court narrowed a 100-year-old precedent that said a delinquent spouse could not be forced to work to pay alimony. The court said that the old ruling does not apply when the payments are for the child.

The justices also found that forcing a parent to work does not violate a constitutional ban on involuntary servitude. "Working to earn money to support a child is not involuntary servitude any more than working in order to pay taxes," the court held.

In the case before the court, Brent Moss of Riverside County had appealed a 30-day jail sentence for missing a year of child-support payments when he failed to work. The ruling will not affect him, however, because the court declined to make it retroactive.

Mr. Moss, who is now working at a car dealership, said in a telephone interview that he hadn't paid child support because "I didn't have an income." About 50 percent of his wages is now earmarked for his children.

The ruling will have "a lot of impact" because some parents pretend they are not working to avoid making payments, says attorney Michael Clepper. Under the ruling, a parent who fails to pay must show by a preponderance of evidence that he or she is disabled or truly unable to find work.

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