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Wisconsin bill could require drunk drivers to pay child support if crashes kill parents

The bill would allow judges to include child support payments as part of the restitution a defendant is required to pay

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State lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on legislation that could require impaired drivers to pay child support if they cause a crash that kills a parent or guardian.

Under current Wisconsin law, a judge orders someone convicted of a crime to pay restitution based on factors including the defendant’s ability to pay, the financial loss caused by the crime and the needs of the victim’s dependents.

Under a pair of bills introduced in Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate this year, a judge could also order child support payments as part of that restitution after someone is convicted of vehicular homicide while intoxicated.

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“Losing a prominent member of the family is a tragedy and adjustment in any circumstance, but losing your parents through an unexpected accident has ripple effects that can last a lifetime,” said Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona, a sponsor of the plan. “I understand that money cannot fill the void that is left behind, but through this legislation, we are here hoping to potentially ease some part of the transition by making sure a family is not left without the proper resources and tools needed to continue raising a child or children.”

The judge would have discretion to set the amount of child support while considering factors such as the finances of a surviving parent and the standard of living the child is accustomed to. The payments could be required until the child turns 18, or until the age of 19 if the child is still enrolled in high school.

Under the bills, victims could still sue a driver for financial damages, but any money awarded would offset the amount of required restitution.

Since 2022, four states — Tennessee, Kentucky, Maine and Texas — have passed similar legislation which is known to supporters as “Bentley’s Law,” according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD.

During a public hearing Thursday before Wisconsin’s Assembly Committee on Judiciary, Cecilia Williams urged Wisconsin to follow suit. Her grandsons, Bentley and Mason, lost their parents and four-month-old baby brother in a car crash caused by a drunk driver in Missouri in 2021.

“It’s a pain that never, ever goes away,” Williams said. “But when we add that financial burden right on top of it, there’s no peace. There will be never any forgiveness. There will never be any rest because now you have to worry about how you’re going to take care of a child.”

MADD representatives testified in favor of the bills. As of Thursday morning, no groups had registered in opposition to the Wisconsin legislation.