The last couple of posts have (tangentially) raised this question: If a person isn’t a parent (legally) of a child, can that person still be obligated to pay to support that child? Put the other way around, do the obligation of support and the privilege of parental rights go hand in hand, so that if you impose one you must give the other?
I think for many people the initial answer here is “yes.” It seems unfair to many people to impose the obligations without offering the corresponding rights. But I’d like to push everyone to think a bit harder about this.
Actually, first I’d like to digress to a utopian fantasy. I think a lot of current family policy, to the extent we can be said to have coherent family policy in the US (and this is a whole other question) is driven by the need to find a source of financial support for children. Certainly much of the federal welfare policy that promoted easy recognition of fathers (through the execution of a voluntary affidavit of paternity, also called a VAP) was premised on the idea that single mothers and their children were left dependant on state aid and that instead fathers should be identified and then obliged to support their dependants.
The utopian vision part is that maybe sometime, somewhere, society will take a larger role in supporting people who are doing the serious work of rearing children. Many places are way ahead of the US in this regard–they allow substantial parental leave–paid parental leave–to take care of a newborn, say. The idea here is that everyone will benefit from the productive worker when they grow up so we all have an interest in ensuring they do so in a way that will allow them to become productive, etc.
But I concede this is utopian and wildly impractical, particularly now in an age of economic hardship. For the time being children in the US will be primarily rely on private support.
So for me, the next basis should probably be on what basis should the obligation to support a child be imposed? And is that the same basis on which parental rights should be awarded? If the answer to the second question is yes, then parental rights and the obligation of support go hand in hand. One implies the other.
I’m going to assume for the moment that there has been ample discussion here of the basis on which parental rights should be awarded. I don’t mean that I think that is over and done with–just that I won’t repeat it here. Anyone who is interested can poke around on the blog–it’s really the central recurring topic, I’m just going to generalize here.
In a nutshell, I’m inclined to award parental rights based on performance. There are lots of complicated questions that I haven’t really resolved, but you’ll get a better idea by looking at the tags labelled “de facto parent” or “functional parent.” This means that, among other things, I reject genetic linkage as the defining criteria for parenthood–a point many disagree with.
So from time to time, the question of support arises. Where a man engages in intercourse as a result of which a woman becomes pregnant, should he bear some support obligation if she decides to give birth to and then raise the child?
I think the answer to this can be yes, even where I would say he is not a parent. Monetary liability is frequently imposed on people who engage in blameworthy conduct. If I drive carelessly and as a result tear up my neighbor’s lawn, I might have to pay to restore the lawn. I don’t acquire any particular rights to that patch of lawn, though, even if I did pay for it to be reseeded.
In the same way it seems to me perfectly plausible to say that a man may have an obligation to pay child support because of his conduct, even though he acquires no rights of parentage. The critical question would be what sort of behavior on his part would trigger the obligation. I have some thoughts about that, but not well enough developed to put right here. Suffice it to say that the mere fact that a woman becomes pregnant and has a child might not be enough.
The main point I want to make here is that I really don’t see why the support obligation has to be tied to parenthood. The basis for financial responsiblity can be quite independent of the basis for parental responsibility. I figured I’d just say this clearly and see what follows.