Sunday, December 30, 2001

Judge Elwood F. Melson, Jr.

Decisions made in Family Court are difficult ones. Perhaps no other court deals with issues as difficult and sensitive as the one that involves the State making decisions regarding domestic relations.

This last Tuesday, one of Delaware’s dedicated public servants died. Former Family Court Judge Elwood F. Melson, Jr., was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1940. He was a Navy veteran, and was elected to a position as a State Senator in 1954. In 1964, he was appointed as an associate judge in Family Court for New Castle County. Judge Melson’s best known legacy was bringing predictability and stability to determinations of child support payments. He created a mathematical formula that was focused on arriving at a fair and equitable settlement between parents regarding payment amounts, while recognizing the needs of children, and of non-custodial parents.

The formula became known as the Melson Formula in Delaware, and was also known in other states and countries as the Delaware Plan. It was years ahead of its time, and influenced many other courts and legislatures. On its face, it appears fairly complex, but an attorney who has used it a couple of times can grasp its intricacies as it balances a good number of issues that previously would have been left to the discretion of a judge. It is aimed at achieving consistent results regardless of who the hearing officer might be in Family Court. It has played an important part in helping other states come up with reasoned discussions as to how their laws on child support should be constructed, and has been adopted by a number of other states.

Melson Formula Articles:

March, 1999 Wilmington News Journal Editorial from Family Court Chief Justice Vincent J. Poppiti
Judge Melson and all who have followed in his footsteps by subsequently updating the formula have tried to balance simplicity with the desire to be fair to both parents and the children. Some states have enacted a straightforward formula that uses a percentage of parents' income, certainly a simple solution, but not necessarily more equitable. The Delaware formula addresses issues such as attributing income to unemployed or underemployed parents, income from second jobs, allowances for insurance and pensions, and support of other dependents.

May, 1999 Wilmington News Journal Editorial from State Rep. Gerald A. Buckworth
A 1988 federal law requires all states to have guidelines for setting and modifying child support obligations. Delaware was ahead of the curve, having instituted such a system nearly a decade earlier.

A discussion of the different models for calculating child support, by Laura Morgan, gives a detailed explanation of the way the Melson Formula is applied, and had the following to say about the Formula:
The proponents of the Melson Formula model argue its internal logic makes it the fairest of the models. Even though the Melson Formula model seems to be the most complicated of the models, its proponents contend that its seeming complexity is superficial; once a practitioner has used the Melson Formula model, its subsequent application is simple.

The Melson Formula model is, indeed, the most internally consistent. It takes into consideration not only special custody arrangements and health care needs, it also takes into consideration each parent's needs. It is thus, on its face, the fairest as perceived by the parent. Where perceived fairness is the most important factor, then the Melson Formula model is the clear winner. Moreover, one expert has found that the Melson Formula model tends to produce less extreme differences in living standards where one parent has a very low income and the other parent has significantly higher income. This again contributes to the perceived fairness of the Melson Formula model. Moreover, because the Melson Formula model takes into consideration commonly occurring expenses, it is consistent and predictable. Its only fault is in its facial complexity.

- William Slawski