There’s everything wrong and nothing right about the labels the Child Support Assessment Act gives to parents.

With language that divides, the “Payer”, the “Payee’, is it any wonder child support causes a lot of conflict between parents?

Or is it that the language of Child Support law somehow managed to buy into a highly conflicted area, and then entrench the history of ill-feeling around the subject?

Either way, stop and think what it’s like to be a parent, first and foremost, of children you love, and find that a government agency just thinks of you as the “payer”.  Not “mother” not “father”, but “the payer”——–er, would that be the same as the ATM, the packhorse?

And what does it feel like to be “the payee”———–one who receives payment, a bank account, a dependant? Not “mother”, not “father”, but a rather odd legal term. And hang on, if I’m the payee, where’s my money? How did the terminology forget that the payee is not getting the money, the children are! That is, the children of the payer and the payee; the “paylets”.

If you read the average piece of correspondence from the Child Support Agency, you will see that the paylets are missing in action. Their parents get letters in a very “payer”/“payee” tone, everybody gets confused, upset and angry, and all the old hurts of the relationship starting looping again. The “he said” “she said” “he did/didn’t” “she did/didn’t” starts over, and meanwhile, the paylets are stuck in the middle.

It’s clear that child support and parental conflict often go hand in hand. The family courts are overly burdened with child support cases, that cost parents and taxpayers a fortune to run, and we know it’s relational conflict more than substance, that drives litigation. The Child Support Assessment Act was designed partly to eliminate this very problem of parents litigating away their child support dollars, but has it?

The terminology of the law really matters, and in this instance it sets the scene for combat: payer versus payee. The climate in which the Child Support Assessment Act was set up in 1989 was one in which child support was not taken seriously and was avoided or was unrealistically low in many, many cases. It rescued children from poverty and still does so today in some cases. But arguably, its educational work is done; the culture has been reset, and parents who are willing to work co-operatively to support their children deserve the respect not to be dehumanised by the language. It’s time for a change. One brilliant idea is that we could use people’s actual name!

Better than any suggestion about altering legislative terminology though, would be to do what the Family Law Act has done when it comes to the time children spend with their parents, and mandate appropriate dispute resolution for child support. Importantly, that should require the input of financial planners to help parents identify and understand the cost of supporting their children in the way they can, or choose to do.  The law has no hope of understanding the needs and aspirations of individual families. Only parents can provide the information to map that out, and why shouldn’t they have the chance to do that and put their paylets in the centre, but not in the middle?

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