Child Support Factors Into Financial Woes

Article originally appeared in the April 24, 2012 issue of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin written by Thomas F. Villanti and Evan D. Whitfield


American sports enthusiasts love a good rags-to-riches story.  Reading about an athlete rising up against the odds, through dedication and hard work, to compete and earn vast sums of money along the way is the quintessential American sports story. Equally as compelling, but not nearly as uplifting, is what happens to a majority of these sporting heroes after the stadium lights go out and the last paycheck becomes a distant memory.  Sports Illustrated reported in a 2009 article that 78 percent of NFL players file for bankruptcy or are under financial distress within two years of retirement.  Basketball players do not fare more better; within five years, 60 percent of NBA players find themselves in financial trouble.

There are many reasons that an athlete’s financial fortunes do not last: from lack of business acumen and unscrupulous money managers to lavish spending and the naïve belief that they will make it all back with their next contract.  Any number of financial planners can attest to the financial pitfalls that many athletes face.  However, even when the athlete surrounds himself with upstanding financial managers, there is one variable that often goes undiscussed: child support obligations.

Unlike other financial missteps, becoming a new father means at least 18 years of financial responsibility, including child support, extracurricular activity expenses and, most likely, a substantial contribution to college.  Young professional athletes hold many misconceptions about the severity and gravity to which a child support obligation will affect their current and future financial situations.  Managers and agents would do well to include a family law expert in their team when consulting with clients to demonstrate how a child support obligation will affect an athlete’s short and long term financial plan.

The sporting world is ripe with examples of athletes who struggle with child support obligations.  Terrell Owens, Dennis Rodman and Warren Sapp have all been recent stars in the tabloids and news reels featuring their financial woes, lavish expenditures and unpaid child support.  Most recently, Sapp, former Miami Hurricane Division I champion and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Super Bowl champ, declared bankruptcy claiming to owe at least $6.7 million, including about $1 million to the IRS and hundreds of thousands of dollars to a reported four women for child support.  Sapp’s situation serves as a sobering example of the financial devastation that multiple child support obligations have on an athlete’s cash flow, no matter how much money they may earn.

In Illinois, pursuant to 750 ILCS 5/505, one child receives 20 percent of the payer’s net income – net income being defined as all income from all sources, minus statutory deductions such as federal and state income tax and prior support obligations actually paid.  750 ILCS 5/505(a)(3).  In cases of multiple children with multiple women, each child is entitled to 20 percent of the payer’s net income subject to the aforementioned deductions.

Here is an example of four separate paternity awards using Sapp’s recently reported income:


Child 1:
Gross income: $1,390,572
Net income: $  870,408
20 percent annual award: $174,082
(18 year total: $3,133.476)
Monthly support: $14,500


Child 2:
Gross income: $1,390,572
Net income: $696,326 (initial net minus previous support award for Child 1)
20 percent annual award: $139,265
(18 year total: $2,506,770)
Monthly support: $11,605


Child 3:
Gross income: $1,390,572
Net income: $557,061 (initial net minus previous support awards for Child 1 and 2)
20 percent annual award: $111,412
(18 year total: $2,005,416)
Monthly support: $9,284


Child 4:
Gross income: $1,390,572
Net income: $446,649 (initial net minus previous support awards for Child 1, 2 and 3)
20 percent annual award: $89,129
(18 year total: $1,604,322)
Monthly support: $7,427


Total monthly child support obligations: $42,824


Total support paid for four children over their respective 18 year periods: $9,249,984.


These figures are for illustrative purposes only and contain a number of assumptions.  Taking Sapp’s most recently reported annual salary of $1,390,572 ($540,000 from the NFL Network and $850,572 from appearances, a book deal advance and other TV contracts) and assuming that Sapp, along with the four children and their mothers all lived in Illinois, four separate child support obligations would cost Sapp the absurdly large amount of $513,888 a year.  In this example, Sapp’s yearly child support obligations account for nearly 60 percent of his annual net income, leaving a paltry 40 percent to cover his living expenses and habits.  Based upon his reported bankruptcy, he clearly did not have enough left to meet his own needs.

It is easy to be astounded when a current or former professional athlete cries financial distress or files for bankruptcy when they have earned millions; however, as the above numbers demonstrate, an athlete with even one paternity obligation, let alone multiple obligations, cannot afford to live a professional athlete’s lifestyle, save for retirement and pay support obligations.  No amount of legal wrangling in paternity court will relieve an athlete of his financial responsibilities to his children.  Courts are not particularly sympathetic to athletes who continually live a lavish lifestyle while attempting to reduce their support obligations.  Additionally, under Section 523(a)(5) of the Bankruptcy Code, domestic support obligations are not dischargeable.

When it comes to financial planning and establishing a budget for athletes, financial managers should utilize a family law expert to provide an explicit hypothetical for the athlete which demonstrates the expense associated with child support obligations.  Demonstrating the financial effects of support obligations can be an effective preventive measure, if not the most necessary prophylactic to assist in avoiding costly support obligations.

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