Unhappy couples often think their problems will be over as soon as their divorce decree is final, says Sheri Atwood, a child of divorce and a divorced parent herself. But when kids are involved, the ex-spouses may still be locked in a testy, ongoing dialogue about money—the issue that may have driven them apart in the first place, Atwood says.
“It doesn’t get better, it gets worse,” says the former Silicon Valley marketing executive, who founded her own Santa Clara, CA-based business in 2011 to see if technology could ease the tension between divorced parents. She wanted to create an online platform where former spouses could track their children’s expenses and coordinate cost sharing on neutral ground.
As Atwood did her preliminary research on the Web, she was stunned to find no direct competitors to the service she eventually created, called SupportPay. While a raft of online systems support chores such as personal accounting, tax preparation, banking, shopping, and hiring, none was set up to manage the complex financial interactions between parents raising a child apart, she says.
“There’s this whole segment of the market that technology has ignored,” says Atwood, CEO of her company, Ittavi. While there’s already a selection of online tools that help with all the legal paperwork around getting a divorce, Atwood believes SupportPay is the first online service designed to help deal with the aftermath.
Most people are aware that typical court-sanctioned divorce and custody agreements call for a set monthly payment to the parent with primary custody, to cover the children’s basic needs such as shelter and food. But often, court orders also require each parent to pay a certain share of the children’s other expenses, ranging from haircuts to school fees and doctors’ bills, Atwood says.
Each category can become a separate battleground, reviving the couple’s fundamental conflicts about money and values. Children are often caught in the middle of these face-to-face arguments, Atwood says.
“When you share custody, the only time you see each other is when you’re exchanging the child,” she says. Children may witness tiffs about missed payments and contested expenses.
SupportPay was designed to take these gripes online, offer mechanisms to resolve them, and facilitate payments. Atwood’s company, Ittavi, has been beta-testing the platform since January with about a hundred parents. Ittavi announced the public launch of the product Oct. 17 at the DEMO Conference in Santa Clara, CA. The full version of SupportPay costs $19.99 per month, which includes a mobile app. A more limited version is free.
Using SupportPay, each parent can enter receipts for their expenditures, record payments they’ve made to the other parent, and see a running tally of any net balance they owe, or that is owed to them. When a payment doesn’t arrive on time, SupportPay automatically sends a polite reminder. The account keeps track of both the set monthly child support payment and the additional expenses. The parents can also store important support-related documents on the site, which uses the cloud storage, software, and security measures of Salesforce.com’s service Force.com.
Atwood says that when she interviewed mothers during the beta-testing period, their most frequent comment was, “The other parent has no idea how expensive these kids really are.”
When she asked fathers—the majority of child support payers—why they would resist sending a check, many said they wanted to be sure the money was being spent on their children, not on purchases for their ex-wives.
The detailed records kept on SupportPay provide evidence of the money’s actual use, and either parent can challenge particular items, Atwood says. The parents can pay third party providers directly—or pay their ex-spouses—using PayPal, credit cards, personal checks, or cash. Some payments need to be entered into the account manually.
The day-by-day expense records could also be accepted as evidence in mediation or in court, in case the divorced couple seeks a formal modification of their support order or a judgment for failing to comply with the order, Atwood says.
But parents can also use SupportPay to prevent such clashes, Atwood says. The platform allows parents to make voluntary agreements to set monthly limits on the amount that can be spent in each category, such as the children’s clothing or haircuts. The parent who wants to exceed that amount needs to ask for pre-approval from the other parent. This could prevent unpleasant surprises, like a custodial parent’s decision to choose the children’s doctors from outside their health insurance policy’s network—a more expensive option.
Ittavi’s target market for SupportPay is middle class and upper middle class families. Of the 55 million US parents who live apart, Atwood says, 39 million belong to her company’s potential customer base.
The former Symantec executive funded Ittavi’s early startup days herself. The company has now raised $300,000 of a planned seed round of $750,000 from angel investors, friends and family.
Although Atwood sees a substantial market for SupportPay, some potential investors in her company have hesitated over the very term “child support,” she says.
“Everybody’s mind jumps to deadbeat dads,” she says. SupportPay can do nothing to force parents to pay, but custodial parents who are doing without their court-ordered support can still use the platform to keep detailed records of the amounts owed. Interest can accumulate on the missed payments. Low income parents can take advantage of the free version of SupportPay to compile evidence to use in court, Atwood says.
“You don’t have to have both parents (using the account) for it to work,” Atwood says.
During the beta-testing period, Atwood noted that when the parents who initially set up the SupportPay accounts invited their ex-spouses to participate, sign-up levels were low. She concluded that the second parents were resisting because the request came directly from their ex-partners.
“The last thing you want to see is your ex’s name in your inbox,” she says. “Now, the invitation comes from me.” Atwood says she explains how the service will make life easier for everyone. Her email, and the SupportPay pages, also includes pictures of the child who will benefit from the financial support.
“The first thing they see is who it’s for,” Atwood says.
Among the future features Atwood plans for SupportPay is a calendar where each parent can note activities in the child’s calendar, such as recitals, baseball games, doctor’s appointments, and friends’ birthday parties. This will make it easier for the non-custodial parent to participate in important events, or simply remain in touch with the child’s world, Atwood says.
“Seventy five percent of parents who live apart meet their obligations,” she says. “Ninety seven percent of parents who are involved in their children’s lives pay.”
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