September 26, 2008

From the desk of Allen Vaught

Family Matters
During the months between legislative sessions, the committees of the Texas House of Representatives meet to examine issues relevant to their jurisdiction. These issues are known as interim charges.

Members of the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, on which I serve, recently held a hearing in Mesquite. The subcommittee on Child Support and Paternity Fraud met to hear testimony related to two of our interim charges.

During the hearing we discussed child support guidelines and formulas, specifically considering whether the current methods provide adequate support. The subcommittee also considered the laws governing paternity and related fraud.

Child Support
Alicia Key, Director of the Child Support Division at the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), provided background information to the committee. Texas is one of only ten states which use the obligor’s income as the only factor for determining child support. Thirty-six states consider both parents’ incomes and include adjustments for parenting time.

Texas law specifies twenty-four reasons that a judge may deviate from the standard formula used to determine child support. The top three most often used are an agreement of parties, possession time, and multi-family formula (used in instances when a father has children with more than one mother).

According to Ms. Key, the OAG surveyed judges in Travis County and found that 81% seldom varied from the standard guidelines. In the cases handled by the OAG, the formulas are strictly followed 75% of the time.

Although the judges are allowed to deviate from the formulas, other factors - such as time constraints or court over-crowding – often prevent justices from thoughtfully considering all available factors. Suggestions to the subcommittee included both mandating judicial review of the reasons for deviation and changing the child support formulas.

College Funding
During the discussion of child support, the discourse turned to the concept of awarding support to cover the costs of college. When setting child support payments, Texas law does not currently address college funding.

The testimony suggested that mandating a parent’s responsibility for a child’s college education would be an extremely difficult task to enforce. Further, the state does not require married couples or adoptive parents to pay for a child’s college education. Requiring parents with child support obligations to do so would place an additional undue financial expectation on them.

Scientific advances in DNA testing generated the subcommittee’s examination of paternity statutes. Some who testified claim science has gotten ahead of the law in terms of establishing paternity.

Establishing paternity holds important health implications, especially when children are born with inherited diseases or disorders. Although some health problems are easy to determine at birth, others do not appear until later in life. In either instance, to best treat medical conditions it is helpful for doctors to know the family medical history of both the mother and the father.

Under current law, it is difficult to set aside a court order of paternity or to rescind an acknowledgement of paternity once it is established. The current statute of limitations to challenge paternity expires after four years of establishment.

Next steps
Many parties affected by current law are interested in seeing changes to many of the procedures commonly followed in family court and by the OAG. In some situations, those who manipulate the truth are inadvertently protected from any consequence. During the next legislative session, the committee will further examine any necessary changes to ensure all people involved in these sensitive situations are treated justly.

Matters covered by the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues committee are often steeped in emotional turmoil. The answers are not always clear cut. Nonetheless, I remain committed to finding workable solutions to that promote one of our main responsibilities as a society: ensuring the safety, good health and well-being of our children.

As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact my district office at