Most likely we will see the Minnesota State Legislature change the statute criminalizing nonpayment of child support this session, following a recent opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court. In the case of State v. Nelson (A12-0071), the defendant owed $83,470 for 11 years of child support for his two children. He was charged under Minnesota Statute 609.375, which criminalizes a parent’s failure to provide “care and support” to their children. After an extensive examination of the language of the statute, the high court concluded that the words “care” and “support” referred to separate obligations, and ruled in a 4-3 decision that Nelson could not be punished because there is no proof he didn’t otherwise “care” for them. So at least according to the dissenting opinion, Minnesota thus becomes the only state that does not hold deadbeat parents criminally accountable for unpaid child support (at least until the language of this law can be reworded).
This case opens the door to wider discussion of what legal obligations parents have toward their children. The Minnesota Child Support Guidelines contain provisions for a “parenting time deduction” in monies owed, but would Mr. Nelson have found himself dragged into court had he simply kept up on those 11 years of checks and had otherwise ignored his children? Understandably, the State has a legitimate interest in ensuring that noncustodial parents make timely and consistent child support payments. And any noncustodial parent who cannot afford their monetary child support obligations would be wise to get their support order changed rather than risk subjecting themselves to criminal charges, garnishments, or just a massive debt pile-up. (This change can be done with assistance from the Ramsey County Family Court Self-Help Center.) But has the law typically regarded non-custodial parents (which tend to be fathers) as mere checkbooks in their children’s lives? Consider also that the child support statute (Minn. Stat. 518A) allows the state to suspend drivers’ and occupational licenses of noncustodial parents in arrears, which impacts a person’s employment prospects which are key to the financial support their kids (not to mention their ability to “care” for them in the form of driving them places). A provocative blog entry on this subject appeared on the website of the National Parents Organization.
Expect the Legislature to grapple with these ideas in the months ahead, and the wording of the statute to change. Meanwhile, feel free to visit the Minnesota Child Support Guidelines website to see how the system operates.