The cost of raising children includes many expenses beyond the day-to-day, from summer camp tuition to medical bills to algebra tutors. But between divorcing parents, disputes over incidental costs that fall outside regular child support responsibilities can escalate quickly.
An app called SupportPay, which helps parents track child-related costs, upload receipts and send the other parent invoices — all without having a conversation with their ex — aims to solve that problem.
Several local family law attorneys said the app could serve as a useful tool for parents who are willing to make an effort to minimize conflict by being diligent about keeping track of their payments. By establishing digital accountability between parents, the app could alleviate some of the tension of co-parenting after divorce, said David Bulitt, a principal with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt.
“Oftentimes you have support payers who complain — Husband X or Wife X says, ‘I don’t know why I have to give this money to my former spouse; she’s just blowing it on x, y, z,’” Bulitt said. “With SupportPay, if both sides use it, it shows how the money is spent, whether it’s for lessons, for a tutor, whatever it might be. If both parties are cooperating and inserting information, I think it’s a great tool.”
Sheila K. Sachs, a member of Gordon Feinblatt LLC, agreed that part of SupportPay’s benefit is the psychological impact on the parent who is paying support. With the app’s help, the parent can more easily see how their money is being used, she said.
“I can see it being beneficial for people who really want to cooperate,” Sachs said. “There has to be a certain amount of trust. … I do think that lawyers with well-intentioned clients could suggest its use.”
SupportPay is available at three price tiers: a free version stores six months of information; a premium, $120-per-year version allows for long-term storage of documents; and a “legal” version, which costs $156 a year and allows parents to make records available to divorce lawyers.
Launched two years ago, SupportPay had 36,000 parent users in January, up from 12,000 in March 2015. It’s currently the only product of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Ittavi Inc., which expects former couples to send $900 million through the platform this year. The company is hoping to become part of the divorce court infrastructure, getting itself included as part of child-support agreements. To that end, the company has built a “family law network” of more than 3,200 divorce attorneys, mediators, judges, and financial advisers, up from about 500 last March.
For parents who are technologically savvy and for whom SupportPay would not be a financial burden, the app could be useful, said Carol G. Cooper, a member at Adelberg, Rudow, Dorf & Hendler LLC in Baltimore. Cooper compared the app to tools that help divorced parents keep track of their child’s schedule.
“I think this is just the other piece of that,” she said. “In the early time after divorce, there’s still usually quite a bit of contention, and it just minimizes how much contact is necessary for these kinds of things, so you’re not having to send emails back and forth where you’re tempted to make certain remarks. It removes that emotional part.”
While the app might be well-suited to divorced parents who are inclined toward cooperation, Baltimore attorney Frederick L. Kobb said it could also be helpful in cases where one parent frequently insists they’ve already made a payment but the other parent says they never received it.
“Those accountings can be a nightmare,” said Kobb, managing partner of Wright, Constable & Skeen LLP. “We’ve had cases where we’ve gone to court over those accountings. In those cases in particular, I think this would be a very valuable resource in tracking payments.”
Bulitt said he has had two clients who’ve attempted to use SupportPay, one of whom expressed frustration with the app because, she said, her husband wasn’t inputting his share of the expense information.
“It’s disastrous when one side is doing it and one side isn’t,” Bulitt said.
Limiting use of the app to certain expenses, Bulitt said, could increase its effectiveness for some parents who don’t want or need to log every incidental cost on the tool.
“Let’s say you have a kid who has special needs, and you’ve got any number of out-of-pocket expenses during the course of a month,” he said. “Oftentimes what I’ve been able to do in cases like that is set up a medical support or medical expense account where mom and dad put a certain amount of money in the account each month or every two months, and bills are paid through there. For isolated purposes like that, I think it could be really helpful and easy to use.”
Similarly, Kobb said the app might prove beneficial for parents who’ve agreed to share responsibility for some expenses after their child turns 18, such as college tuition or car insurance bills.
“If they’ve made an agreement and that agreement is incorporated into the divorce, then the court has authority to enforce it,” Kobb said. “To be able to have a mechanism to track those payments can eliminate a lot of controversy later about what payments you made or what expenses you incurred. It provides a mechanism for ongoing accounting, rather than parents having to do that on their own.”
The bottom line, Bulitt said, is that the app’s success in any particular divorce case will likely be determined by the nature of the relationship between the parents and their willingness to exercise diligence.
“I think it can work, but I do think it would require both parents to be willing to make it work, to put the time in and cooperate,” Bulitt said. “People are not going to cooperate any better because there’s SupportPay. But if they’re inclined to cooperate, this is a good tool to help them do so.”
Bloomberg contributed to this story.