The table for calculating child support that a divorced parent pays to the other parent living with their children has been updated by the Supreme Court’s Legal Training and Research Institute for the first time in 16 years. The move was prompted by criticism that the amount of child support paid on the basis of the table used in divorce trials is too low — a factor that leaves many single-parent households mired in poverty.

The update to increase child support will indeed help improve the financial conditions of single-parent families — though not significantly. However, a larger problem is the fact that many single mothers do not receive from their former husbands the designated amount of support promised in the divorce arrangements. A study by Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry found that only less than a quarter of single-mother households receive such payments from divorced spouses.

Unlike many countries in Europe and North America, Japan does not have a system in which the government compensates for unpaid child support or collects the money from the party who is supposed to make the payment, for instance by deducting the amount from his or her salary or seizing their bank account. To protect the interests of the children in these families, the government needs to consider steps to make sure such households are paid the child support to which they are entitled.

The table shows how divorced parents should divide the expenses of their children’s upbringing on the basis of the basic income of both the party paying the child support and the one receiving the payment, calculated by deducting necessary expenses such as taxes and housing costs from the gross income of each. Data used in the current table have not been updated since it was made in 2003, and there was criticism that it does not reflect changes in people’s lives and social conditions.

The updated table will generally increase the monthly amount of child support payment by between ¥10,000 and ¥20,000, depending on the income of the paying party. The increase may reach ¥60,000 for divorced parents with high incomes. In a model case of a divorced husband with annual income of ¥5.5 million and a self-employed ex-wife earning ¥2.5 million, the amount paid by the former husband to the wife living with their two children — both 14 or younger — will increase from the current range of ¥40,000 to ¥60,000 a month to ¥60,000 to ¥80,000.

Such an increase will help single-parent households to a degree. But the larger problem that needs to be addressed is that many single-parent families fail to receive the child support payment as promised. Updating the rules to increase the amount of support will be meaningless if the money is never paid.

The amount of child support will be determined in family court mediation or proceedings if the divorced parents cannot agree on the amount between themselves. Such support is normally paid until the child under one parent’s custody becomes an adult. However, many couples do not even make an arrangement for child support payments when they get a divorce. In a 2016 survey by the welfare ministry, only about 40 percent of single-mother households said they have an agreement with the divorced spouses regarding such payments. Such mothers reportedly give up on making the arrangements because they don’t want to deal with their former husband, or because they concluded that their ex-partner couldn’t afford to make the payments.

According to the welfare ministry, only 24.3 percent of single-mother households said they currently receive child support payments, and 56 percent said they’ve never received any such payment. The nonpayment adds to the generally dire financial conditions of single-mother families — whose average annual income is only around ¥2 million.

When the amended Civil Execution Act takes effect, single parents can take legal steps to obtain information about the financial conditions, such as the amount of savings, of their divorced spouses who fail to pay child support. But further legal action, like collecting the unpaid money, is left up to the single parents, and it is doubtful that many can afford the time and expense involved in taking such a step.

Some local governments are beginning to take action. The city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, is planning to introduce a system — the first of its kind across the country — whereby the municipal government will make up for unpaid child support and take action to collect the amount from the divorced spouse failing to make the payment. It is time that the national government follow in their footsteps.

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