By Elspeth Crawford
Father’s Day is a time for sons and daughters to come together in honor of the man who raised them from tiny infants to productive members of society. Unless they didn’t. Millions of parents the world over are non-custodial parents, meaning they live separate and apart from their children. Because all parents have a legal obligation to support their children financially, many of these fathers and mothers must pay child support, a task to which they’ve often proved less than equal. To give you a taste of the problem, non-custodial parents in California alone owed a total of 19.2 billion dollars in back child support in 2011.
Most of those arrears are owed by parents on the lower end of the income scale, but the rich and famous aren’t immune to child support woes. Here’s our list of the top five celebrity dads who may have some work to do before they can expect their Father’s Day cards:
1. Eddie Murphy. Actor-comedian Eddie Murphy was steadily married to wife Nicole Mitchell for eighteen years. The union produced five children, but after it ended in 2006 Murphy began looking for new companionship. He began dating former Spice Girl Melanie Brown, a.k.a. Scary Spice, a.k.a. The Spice Girl People Don’t Remember, shortly after his split. Brown gave birth to a baby girl in 2007, but Murphy denied being the father, at least until a paternity test put the matter to bed.
A determination of paternity is often a prerequisite to enforce any kind of child support obligation. Every state treats the process differently, but most assume that a husband is the father of a child born to his wife. If the pair is unmarried, things get trickier. Many fathers just admit that they’re dads, but if they don’t want to, the court can imply paternity through their dad-like actions, like caring for the child or supporting the child financially. In the case of the truly resistant, the court can order potential fathers to undergo a DNA test.
2. Terrell Owens. Owens, a former NFL wide receiver known for breaking into touchdown dances so funky he actually got fined for a few of them, has an expansive view of family. He has four children, each one by a different mother, and owes child support for all four. Although he made upwards of $80 million during his football career, Owens hasn’t been bringing much home since switching over to free agent status and eventually claimed that he couldn’t keep up with his mounting support payments. He asked a judge to lower his payments late in 2011.
Child Support payments are set by statute, usually as a proportion of net income. The Illinois statute even comes with a neat little graph that tells non-custodial parents how much of their income they owe: 20% for one child, 28% for two, and so on right on up to half of the money they make. This can cause a problem when, like Owens, a parent’s net income drops but they’re still paying a percentage of what they were making before. When that happens, they can petition the court to lower the order. Victory dances in court are not encouraged.
3. Charlie Sheen. Charlie Sheen, a man known equally for his impressive acting resume and mounting number of uncomfortable public breakdowns, divorced from wife Brook Mueller in 2011. As part of the divorce settlement, Sheen agreed to pay $55,000 per month for support of their twin sons Bob and Max. In June of 2011, a Los Angeles judge ordered that the support money be garnished from payments made to Sheen for his work as an actor on the popular sitcom "Two and a Half Men". It’s anyone’s guess how he’s making the payments today.
In the best of cases, the method of paying support is settled between the parents without need to resort to a judicial order. Wage garnishment is a common choice, but payment by check or wire transfer is also acceptable. In cases where non-custodial parents are unwilling to pay, courts have the power to, upon motion, order that payments be garnished from their wages. If the non-custodial parent tries to hide money that could be used for support, perhaps by transferring it to a new spouse or to a business, most state statutes provide courts with ways of garnishing the money from the transferee. The law puts a priority on money that should be used to make child support payments, so no matter where they’re hidden the court can likely reach them.
4. Dennis Rodman. Famously flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman has been married a number of times, but his third marriage to Michelle Moyer is the source of his current parenting woes. The two have been wrangling over child support for their son and daughter ever since splitting in 2004. In 2011, Rodman was found guilty of four counts of contempt for failing to pay his back child support, which Moyer claims runs in excess of $800,000. Rodman’s monthly payments have since been lowered, but as punishment a judge recently sentenced him to 104 hours of community service, suggesting that Rodman use his “talents as a motivator, as a fine, fine athlete and as a fine person to assist others in need.”
Among the many tools judges have to enforce child support orders is the hammer of contempt. Failure to pay child support can lead to a finding of contempt, and a finding of contempt can lead, as in Dennis Rodman’s case, to forced community service. It can also lead to being put on probation, having one’s driver’s license suspended, or even jail time.
5. Joe Walsh. Tea party Congressman Joe Walsh has been dogged by child support problems throughout his tenure as the representative for Illinois’ 8th District. In 2011, ex-wife Laura Walsh sued him for $117,437 in overdue child support payments, pointing out that although he claimed that he had no money to pay her, he had little trouble donating $35,000 to his 2010 campaign or taking allegedly expensive foreign vacations in years prior. Joe Walsh denied these allegations, and they were recently laid to rest after the two settled for an undisclosed amount.
Most lawsuits, whether they concern child support or not, settle before they reach the trial stage. Such an outcome is doubly desirable for a politician like Walsh, who can’t afford to look like a deadbeat dad in front of his public, but is likely the best solution for most parents caught in these kinds of disputes. Settling out of court saves time, legal fees, and the psychic costs such battles can exact on children.
And there we are: five famous family men who ended up on the wrong side of the family law. But don’t think that men have a premium on missing their support payments. According to a recent survey of divorce lawyers, women are paying child support in higher numbers than ever before, so perhaps we’ll have a new list ready for you by Mother’s Day.