by Commissioner Richard G. Vogl
The Department of Child Support Services has recently filed a proposal which would be a sea change in regards to child support in this state. It is a Budget Change Proposal which suggests legislative changes and will be attached to the Governor’s Spring Finance letter which is then submitted to the legislature for discussion—possible hearings and a vote for approval or disapproval.
The request is for authority to establish an administrative process for setting and modifying child support orders. To be implemented in two phases, the first phase might commence as early as January 1, 2011. In this stage only “modification of child support” matters would be affected. Effective January 1, 2012, the second phase would kick in, and then cases where child support must be “established” would be affected.
The present requirement that spousal support issues—either establishment or modification—be heard by a Commissioner designated as a 1058 Commissioner would continue without change.
The first step in this new administrative process would be the requirement that the parties meet in the office of the Department of Child Support Services to discuss the issue of child support with a “Conference Officer.” This person would be an employee of the Department and would have “specialized mediation training.” There seems to be no requirement that this person be a law school graduate or a lawyer. At this conference, the Conference Officer would calculate the child support for the parties. If the parties agree, a written stipulation would be signed by the parents.
If the parties did not agree, then the determined amount would nonetheless become the actual “interim order” and would be “sent to the court for approval.” Upon filing it would be considered “issued and enforceable.”
There is no provision in the proposal which sets forth the power of the court to decline to enter the “interim order” for any reason. Further, no provisions suggest the reasons for which the court might decline to sign this interim order.
The parties will have the power, however, if within 20 calendar days of the date of the mail service of the interim order, they request a hearing “orally or in writing.”
If such a request is made, then another employee of Department of Child Support Services would be scheduled to have a meeting with the parties in approximately 30 days. This employee would be a “Hearing Officer.” There seems to be a requirement that this person would be an attorney. However, this step could be bypassed if the parties filed a request directly with the court for a court hearing.
Thus, if no request for a judicial hearing is filed, then the Hearing Officer would meet with the parties at the offices of the Department to review evidence and make findings.
This hearing process is designed to be “user friendly and accessible, as it would engage child support customers at the beginning of the process and encourage them to fully participate in all aspects of establishing or modifying child support orders.”
One of the reasons given for the new proposal, is that this process will “ensure accuracy of support orders by relying on current income information, and would allow for more timely payments by non-custodial parents on current support and arrears.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, another “interim order” would be prepared which would be sent to the court for filing. Upon filing, this new interim order would be considered “issued and enforceable,” and would become “final” if neither party requests a judicial hearing within 20 days from the mail service of the interim order.
If either party is still unhappy with the “interim order” they could request a judicial hearing but must do so within 20 days from service of the interim order.
At that point, the process might be as our present system exists where each party may or may not have counsel, and the Department would be represented by a deputy.
But it might be different, too. That is, the proposal suggests that our court commissioners would be authorized to hold hearings on cases managed by the Department of Child Support Services “from any physical court location within any county,” and they could “hear cases in person, by telephone, by audiovisual means, or by other electronic means.”
In addition to the reasons stated above, the proposal suggests that some 17 million dollars as it is anticipated that this arrangement is more “timely and efficient.” Further, it is thought that the proposed system would “enhance customer convenience, increase awareness of program services, and improve customer satisfaction.”
Opinions are being sought. Any thoughts you may have on this new proposal should be forwarded to the Senior Administrative Coordinator-AB 1058 Child Support Program/Center for Families, Children & the Courts Judicial Council of California-Administrative Office of the Courts, 455 Golden Gate Avenue San Francisco, CA 94102-3688 (415.865.8833).
Commissioner Richard G. Vogl is a commissioner at the Superior Court in Santa Ana and was formerly long-time Family Law Corner Editor of the Orange County Lawyer magazine.
Editor's note: After this article was submitted for publication, the Senate Budget Subcommittee held a hearing and rejected the proposal for the time being.