Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Child Support and Professional Athletes: Finding a Better Solution

Professional athletes, like other parents, have to deal with child support issues when they don't live with the other parent of their children. Whether the issue arises in a divorce or in a paternity case, or in a suit to modify a prior order for child support, there are special circumstances that need to be considered. Professional baseball, football and basketball players often have child support cases in Texas. There are also some hockey and soccer players as well. Professional athletes can incur significant obligations for child support and must make sure an appropriate amount is ordered. The obligations can go up to 18 years or more, so there is a substantial amount of money at stake for a long time. In addition, the mothers of their children sometimes have special concerns, as well, that need to be addressed.

Because of the unique nature of their employment and because of their often high profiles in the community, professional athletes in Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL, soccer leagues and various minor leagues, are probably better served by using Collaborative Law to resolve their family law issues, especially related to child support. Collaborative Law provides a private, respectful and creative environment for solving family problems. It provides a means to create unique solutions and not have everything exposed to the press.

1. How does the process start? To use the Collaborative process, both parties must hired trained Collaborative attorneys. Parents should get some understanding of how the Collaborative process works (I won't go into detail about that here). If it seems like it could work, then the parties should contact Collaborative attorneys near where they live. I normally recommend bringing in a neutral mental health professional who acts as a communication facilitator and a neutral financial professional who works with both sides providing analysis, tax information and projections, among other things. Using both other professionals makes the process work more efficiently and more effectively, as well as being more comfortable for everyone.

2. Determining paternity. If the parties have not been married, a DNA test is usually done so there is no question later about paternity, even in cases where both parties are certain about parentage. If there is a possible question of paternity, then the DNA test is essential. The alleged father must take the test in a timely manner, either by agreement or by court order. Failure to submit a DNA sample can be a reason to be found to be the father. DNA testing is quick, painless and very accurate.

3. What if a letter about possible paternity and child support comes from the Texas Attorney General? If you receive a letter, or get served with papers, from the A.G.'s office, you need to contact your attorney right away. Failure to respond might result in you being named the father of the child, even without a DNA test. Again, you need to immediately discuss the situation with an attorney.

4. How is child support set? In a Collaborative case, the support is probably going to be set based on the needs of the child(ren) and the goals of the parties regarding how the children are going to be raised. In a litigated child support case, the approach is a little more rigid. Each state has a different system and the federal government is very active in pushing collection of child support, but the feds don't yet have a uniform system of setting support for all the states. In Texas, support is calculated from the parent's net income resources. Usually, the support is 20% for one child and 25% for two children, for example, but the state statute allows some variation based on a long list of factors. In addition, if the parent has multiple children by different mothers or fathers, the calculation is different. It is best to visit with an attorney to figure out the possible child support.

5. What are some of the complications? The following are some of the factors that exist and make Collaborative Law the preferable means of resolving the issues.
  • Few professional athletes have truly guaranteed contracts. Even when large contracts are signed, payments may be deferred and salary may not be guaranteed. Some contracts have a lot of incentives, which perpetuates uncertainty.
  • Minor league players make a lot less than major league players and also are subject to significant uncertainty. They may never make it to the big leagues and should pay support based on their actual income, but there could be some creative arrangements to increase the support if the player gets called up to the big leagues.
  • A player can have sudden changes in income from such factors as injury, getting cut, sitting on the bench and having the next contract reduced, or retirement.
  • Another complication, although a good one to have, is the possibility of having a high income at some points in a career.
  • Most professional athletes have a relatively short career, so child support based on a high income should be able to be adjusted.
  • There may a difficulty in setting an appropriate amount of child support when income is very high. In litigation, the child support would be based on provable needs above the standard amounts of support. In Collaborative Law, other standards and goals could be used to establish the level of support.
  • Both parties would likely want to avoid publicity and keep their financial affairs out of the public eye. In addition, unfavorable publicity for the athlete can adversely affect the athlete's ability to pick up endorsements and secondary income. Collaborative Law allows the parties to keep the issues and facts private.
  • If a child has special needs, they can easily be addressed through the Collaborative process.
  • If the parents don't get along very well, working with the neutral mental health specialist in the case might lead to some improvement in attitude and cooperation between the parents.
  • If the athlete becomes disabled, the Collaborative process can provide an appropriate way to adjust the support.
  • Some athletes play for pro teams overseas and that leads to a number of complications, including the cost of living overseas, what expenses may be reimbursed, the uncertainty of payment and the length of the contract, among other things.

6. What can be done? I recommend the parties use Collaborative Law. It is a private process which is controlled by the parties who are assisted by appropriate experts. No order is signed unless the parties agree on it. The system is focused on the underlying goals and needs of the parties and it produces creative new solutions to the problems mentioned above. The first step is to locate and meet with an attorney trained in Collaborative Law. It is the best solution for both the parents and the children who are involved.

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