Real-Life Math Sucks

In honor of the start of another school year, this post is the answer to “When will I ever use this math in real life?” If you have a child and want to get divorced in Massachusetts, the state does a great job of giving you an opportunity to use every math skill you’ve ever learned and may send you to the book store for “Math for Dummies.” It could also be a discriminatory way to discourage divorce among humanities majors—but I digress.

In Massachusetts if you have a child, the divorce process begins by filling out the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. I would love to know the number of web hits this form gets, because believe me, right on the heels of “I can’t stand to be married anymore” comes “Oh my god, can I afford to be divorced?” which sends you careening to the web and you land on this form. It sounds promising—the “guidelines” part lures you into a false sense of security that you will be guided along this serpentine bureaucracy. At first glance it looks simple enough, although the impersonal use of the word “payor”—I assume they mean your child’s other parent—should have tipped me off. They ask for income and then four other amounts for you and the payor: child care costs, health insurance, dental/vision insurance, and other support obligations. Even a busy working mom like me can make quick educated guesses, and I was relieved that I didn’t have to go digging into my financial paperwork like I would for my taxes.

But then I notice they wanted the weekly amounts. I get paid weekly, but my ex gets paid bi-weekly, so that involves some math—I’m an English major, but I have my pride, so I took a deep breath and  whipped out the calculator on my smart phone. I did the simple math and get some basic numbers. So far, so good, until I see the next section. It’s a small sea of numbers, letters, math symbols and instructions that put me into a mild panic. The letters refer back to the five amounts I just entered, and now I have to go back and forth between the letters that stand for a number, consult two different tables, execute an “if, then” statement, and perform the required math. Now I’m in a full-blown panic—it’s the SATs and my failed college computer programming class all over again:


  1. Combined amount for one child (See Table A)
  2. Adjustment for number of children covered by this order (See Table B)
  3. Combined support amount 2(a) x 2(b) d. Recipient’s % of combined income Recipient 1(f) ÷ 1(g)
  4. Recipient’s % of combined income Recipient 1(f) ÷ 1(g)
  5. Minus Recipient’s share of combined support amount 2(c) x 2(d)
  6. Payor’s proportional weekly support amount 2(c) – 2(e)
  7. Weekly support amount as % of Recipient income 2(f) ÷ Recipient 1(f)
  8. Payor’s final weekly support amount if 2(g) is 10% or more, then enter 2(f) here _______________, otherwise, enter the lesser of 2(f) OR (10% + 2(g)) x Payor 1(f)

Say what, now? Here I am, reeling from the breakdown of my marriage, worried about making sure my son is OK, and you want me to do higher math? WTF? I’m guessing most of the non-math people stop here—the pain of doing math could very well outweigh the pain of divorce and make you go back into the ring for another go. I actually learned how to do this math at one point in my life, but what about people who never did? What chance do they have of figuring this out? For those of us who manage to persevere, more shocks await. After struggling with the math, I discover the form says my ex should be paying TWICE as much in child support than what we have decided on our own, based on our real life, not a disembodied math formula. I checked my math again, (it’ wasn’t any less painful the second time). We both make about the same amount of money and neither of us make six figures, so I know the state’s number would seriously affect his life.

So why does my ex need to pay so much? Apparently the underlying formula has not been changed substantially since the 1970s, when it was made for couples with one main bread-winner and one stay-at-home partner. Perhaps it still works for those couples, all 25 percent of them. Without negating the very real issues of child support, having the non-custodial parent living in a hovel because of an outdated formula isn’t any better than having the custodial parent and child living in a hovel. Without trying to sound like a revolutionary rabble-rouser, could we have, say, um, two or three formulas, based on real world scenarios? I know some data people who could not only come up with any number of alternative formulas, they could test them, refine them, and test them again all before breakfast and they would actually enjoy it. Heck, a couple of MIT students could probably fit it in between building their solar car from a hobby kit, designing a bionic body part, and launching a start-up. Maybe the state is afraid that if it makes the form easier and the formula more fair, it will encourage more people to get divorced. On the other hand, it just might help improve the population’s math skills.

Photo credit: The Neiderkorn Library



  1. LOL – You raise an interesting point about incentives – had never thought about that. Even if that is the case, I think our society changes quickly enough (note rate of new releases from Apple) that even 10 years is a bit out of date (for formulas and incentives). Although a math lover (I got a chuckle on the “higher math” comment), I think making paperwork simpler and having supports during an already tumultuous time is a great idea. What’s funny – someone probably thought they ARE making this simple 🙂 I’ve learned, always run “simple math” by a liberal arts person!

  2. Thanks for the comments and glad you liked it! One woman’s “higher math” is another woman’s “arithmetic.” 🙂 And any way, you were one of the data people I was referring to, so get to it!

  3. As I once said in an FBook post, I do math better than former Harvard Prez Larry S writes poetry, and so THERE, Larry. But this made me take the name of my big boss at Trinity in vain (consider that duly uttered in CAPS). As far as the “shares”, um, we used to put debtors in prison so they couldn’t work to pay their debts, so why not impoverish and destabilize folks who are responsible for children’s well-being? Many fast-paces and right-on reflections here (meaning you, not I)!

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