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Maryland's child support guidelines are based on economic data from the 1970s - something the state Department of Human Resources hopes to change next year.

The department is pushing a new set of guidelines that would increase the amount most noncustodial parents pay. For the lowest-income families, child support payments would go down slightly, which department officials say could decrease the number of parents who dodge the system.

Human Resources officials, who oversee court-ordered child support collection, have unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers several times in recent years to update the guidelines, which underwent their last major revision in 1988. In preparation for the legislative session that begins in January, the department is taking a more aggressive approach.

The department has been taking public comments at a series of regional forums about child support; one is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Anne Arundel Community College's Arundel Mills campus, Lecture Hall Room 104.

"In the past, perhaps we didn't get started early enough," said Nancy Lineman, a Human Resources spokeswoman. "These are very complicated issues, and you can't just dump them out there in January."

Human Resources Secretary Brenda Donald has said changing the guidelines will top her legislative to-do list. The department collected and distributed more than $500 million in child support payments last year.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and a family law attorney, said she believed her colleagues in Annapolis understand the need to update the guidelines and will pass the legislation next year.

The guidelines are similar to an income tax schedule, said Correne Saunders, research director of the Family Welfare Research and Training Group at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Payments are determined by a chart that sets different amounts based on combined income of both parents. The noncustodial parent pays a percentage of the support that mirrors the percentage of the income he or she earns. The final amount is set by a judge who takes into account other circumstances, such as high medical costs.

For example, if two parents together earn $3,400 per month, support for one child would be $497 under the current guidelines. Under the proposed new guidelines, support would jump to $644. If the noncustodial parent earns half of the family's income, he or she would pay about $250 per month under the old guidelines and $322 under the new guidelines.

"It's a fairness issue," said Jane C. Venohr of the Denver-based Center for Policy Research. "Family expenditures are very different in the 21st century. Guidelines need to be updated to reflect what families actually spend to raise children."

Despite having the highest per-capita income of any state in the nation, Maryland is among just a small handful of states, including some of the poorest, that haven't updated child-support guidelines since before 1990, according to Venohr.

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