Poor Mr. Hartley. Four years ago he reduced his child support when his oldest child reached age 19. Shoulda gone to court. Shoulda gone to court.
The case is Hartley v. Hartley, Case No. 2080240 (Ala. Civ. App. August 28, 2009). The parties divorced in 2001 and Mom got custody of the two children. The court ordered Dad to pay $677 per month child support. When the oldest child reached the age of 19 in 2004, Dad unilaterally cut his child support in half, to $338.50. Mom said she didn’t agree with Dad’s lowering the child support but that she did nothing because she couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight it.
Fast forward to 2008, when Mom walks into the DHR office in Autauga County and asks if Dad might owe her some back child support. Well yes, as a matter of fact he does.
The trial court said no, that child support for the older child “terminated by operation of law” when the older child reached the age of majority, even though Dad took no action with the court to seek a reduction. Apparently Mom’s income went up or Dad’s went down in the meantime, because the trial court determined the amount of child support Dad should have been paying was $321 and that Dad consequently owed no arrearage. Mom appealed.
Mom wins. Here’s the black letter law:
When the order establishing the amount of child support to be paid does not designate a specific amount for each child, events such as a child’s reaching the age of majority or a child’s marriage do not automatically modify a child support judgment. State ex rel. Killingsworth v. Snell, 681 So. 2d 620, 621 (Ala. Civ. App. 1996); Hamilton v. Phillips, 494 So. 2d 659, 661 (Ala. Civ. App. 1986). Hartley at 4.
The appeals court also endorsed Mom’s argument that child support payments that mature or become due before the filing of a petition to modify are not modifiable. A child support obligation “may be modified only as to installments that accrue after the filing of a petition to modify the child-support obligation.” Hartley at 5.
Therefore, the father’s monthly child-support obligation of $ 677 as set forth in the 2001 judgment could not be automatically modified when the older child reached the age of majority. The full amount of the child-support obligation continued to mature each month, and the trial court could not properly forgive the difference between the amount of child support the father was paying and the amount due each month until the date the father filed his petition for modification. Accordingly, the trial court erred in retroactively modifying the father’s child-support obligation effective on the date the older child reached the age of majority. Hartley at 6.
In his concurring opinion, Judge Bryan agreed that Dad was stuck with the arrearage because he didn’t seek a modification, but he asked for some kind of relief for child support payors like Dad. Pointing out the well-settled principle that a child’s right to child support terminates when the child reaches the age of majority, Judge Bryan said:
There are a myriad of reasons why an obligor parent may not file a timely petition to modify their hild-support obligation once one child attains the age of majority, including lack of funds to hire an attorney and file a petition with the court, the cost of filing a petition with the court, or the inability of the obligor parent to personally file the petition due to some type of incapacitation . . . . The issue in this case exposes an important dichotomy that affects parents and children involved in the child-support system in this State and should be resolved at some point. Hartley at 11.
On the ground in Alabama. When I read this to my wife Amanda, she reacted as many responsible Alabama citizens would. “Seems like a technicality. Do you mean that if I’m paying child support for five children, I have to go back to court every time one of those kids reaches the age of 19? Do I have to pay a lawyer to do that? Sounds like that’s better for divorce lawyers than it is for consumers.” She has a point, doesn’t she?
I told Amanda, and I will tell you, that the judicial system has a chip on its collective shoulder about people paying child support (read that mostly Dads) who take it upon themselves to modify their obligation to pay child support without so much as a by your leave from the judge. Some fathers (certainly not all, but some) have a habit of reducing child support for the flimsiest of reasons, ranging from the Best Buy payment for the TV Mom took with her, to the skateboard Dad gave Junior for his birthday. Judges don’t like this, and for good reason. Perhaps that explains the system’s seemingly rigid reaction to poor Mr. Hartley.
In any event, the lesson is clear for child support obligors. If you have a child with younger siblings reaching the age of adulthood, DO NOT simply take it upon yourself to pay less than the judge has ordered you to pay. Yes, you have to deal with judges and lawyers, and yes, it will cost some money, but you need to get the court to issue a new child support order, and then comply with it.
And here’s another thought: DHR doesn’t intervene just for custodial parents; it also intervenes for non-custodial parents. DHR’s allegiance is not to child support recipients but to accuracy. So Dad, you can do this without incurring a big legal bill. Call DHR. Now.