Report on Study of Administrative and Judicial Processes for Establishing Child Support Orders


Publication Date: May 23, 2003


DATE: May 23, 2003


RE: Dissemination of Report on Study of Administrative and Judicial Processes for Establishing Child Support Orders

Dear Colleague:

The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) is pleased to distribute the attached report by the Lewin Group (Lewin) titled "Administrative and Judicial Processes for Establishing Child Support Orders." The report is a product of an OCSE contract with Lewin to study and survey state administrative and judicial processes for the establishment of child support orders.

Lewin conducted the study in three phases. First, Lewin developed a taxonomy of child support order establishment processes and used it to characterize each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. States were placed on a scale ranging from "highly judicial" through "quasi-judicial" to "highly administrative," based on the forum used, the kind of presiding officer assigned, and the extent of IV-D attorney involvement in the establishment of child support orders. Second, Lewin selected nine states to study in depth, based on responses to questions and documents provided by states. Third, Lewin visited five of the nine states for extensive interviews. The states studied in depth reflect order establishment processes across the administrative/judicial process continuum. Overall, Lewin documented specific differences in order establishment procedures among more judicial and more administrative states.

The report suggests that the traditional dichotomy of judicial versus administrative process has more nuances than originally thought. There is great variety among states in how they go about establishing child support orders, even among states that are primarily judicial in their approach. Few states use just one kind of process, and the process within a state may differ depending on, among other things, whether the non-custodial parent protests the proceeding. In addition, states differ to varying degrees in how they: notify non-custodial parents of proposed orders, serve process, impute parental income, deviate from child support guidelines, interact with non-custodial parents, establish default orders, reveal proposed order amounts, resolve contested proceedings, handle appeals, and involve IV-D attorneys.

The findings of the study do not definitively answer the critics of judicial processes, who say that they are too time-consuming and cumbersome, or the critics of administrative processes, who say that they lead to too many appeals or lower compliance. The findings about which processes are most effective are merely suggestive:

  • Administrative and judicial states are both meeting expedited timeframe requirements.
  • Among the nine states studied in depth, administrative process states appeared to do particularly well on cost-effectiveness measures.
  • Among these nine states, administrative and quasi-judicial states performed well on the proportion of cases with orders, but one of the highly judicial states performed just as strongly.
  • The study focused on order establishment, not collections; but, it is worth noting that the nine states studied in depth, which varied considerably between highly judicial and highly administrative processes, performed very similarly on collecting current support and getting collections on arrears.

Since there are no clear-cut answers on effectiveness, will the study be useful to practitioners? It can be, if they are willing to look beyond simple answers like whether judicial or administrative processes are "right" or "better."

Judges, court administrators, and IV-D managers should closely examine the alternative process options and then discuss them with colleagues across state lines. It will not be sufficient to discuss such practical matters with in-state peers. The important thing is to test assumptions about "why we do it that way" by comparing notes with colleagues in states that do it differently.

  • In the study, for example, Texas and Arizona are both classified as highly judicial states. In Texas, the first contact with the non-custodial parent is service to appear in court. In Arizona, some counties start with a letter to both parents inviting them to participate in a negotiation conference. What difference does it make? Is the non-custodial parent more likely to show up at the actual hearing, with income documentation, having received such a negotiation invitation, even if the negotiation session never happens? Are there fewer default orders entered? Professionals in such states need to talk with each other to answer such questions.
  • Judicial states are more likely to use process servers and in-person service; administrative states rely heavily on certified mail. Managers in the judicial states seem convinced that there are fewer no-shows (and default orders) at hearings as a result, but there are no clear data to demonstrate that effect. To find out the answers, child support professionals in a state that uses one approach need to contact those who use the other approach to compare hearing no-show rates and default order rates (data that are not collected at the Federal level).
  • Caseworkers in administrative states generally have more authority to deviate from guidelines when establishing orders to accommodate excessive health-care costs or multiple non-custodial families. Child support professionals sometimes argue whether such deviations result in more appeals or more compliance, but again, there are no clear data to demonstrate such effects. To realistically assess the relative impact of the two approaches, child support managers and court administrators should use this study to discover which states use procedures different from their own, and then contact them to compare results, including numbers of appeals and extent of compliance.

To make the kinds of cost-effectiveness comparisons suggested here presupposes that state and county administrators are willing to go beyond the data collection and reporting mandated by the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. OCSE does not require reporting on no-show rates at hearings or the extent of early non-compliance with default orders. But OCSE does provide incentive funds for cost-effectiveness and for collections as a proportion of ordered amounts. It is in the interest of state and county administrators to monitor the effects of no-show rates and default orders on performance and then consider the expense of service of process methods, negotiation sessions, the need to involve judges before making deviations from guidelines, etc.

Then, the extra step being suggested here: compare results across state lines with those who do it differently. It is a mistake to assume that "we’ve always done it that way; the other way would produce too many appeals" or "too much non-compliance." That is the one thing that the Lewin study makes most clear: doing it "the other way" may save money, and the folks who do it that way are often convinced that THEY are the ones getting the better compliance and lower no-show rates.

OCSE staff urge state and county officials to use this report, making a systematic list of individual court and office practices to re-examine and a list of other states that handle those practices differently. We look forward to hearing the results of the contacts among those officials.


Sherri Z. Heller, Ed.D.
Office of Child Support Enforcement

Attachment: Study of Administrative and Judicial Processes for Establishing Child Support Orders

cc: Regional Office CSE Program Manager

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