Reducing Child Support in Alabama

Child support in Alabama is designed to be dynamic, to go up and down as Mom’s and Dad’s incomes change, and as their respective expenses for child care and health insurance change. In Humber v Humber, Case No. 2150922 (Ala. Civ. App. May 12, 2017), we have an example of what happens to child support when one of the parents gets laid off from work.

The parties were divorced in 2003, and the court ordered the father to pay child support of $1300 per month. This at a time when the father worked for USX and had enjoyed income as high as $65,000. 12 years later, though, USX laid off the father, and his income after exhausting his unemployment dropped to $12,000 per year in “supplemental unemployment benefits” from USX. USX also provided health insurance coverage to the father and his children at no charge.

The father had applied for and been offered several jobs paying $8 or $9 per hour, but taking them would have ended his free health insurance from USX. He testified that he felt “stuck between a rock and a hard place” when weighing taking another job vs. hanging onto the free health insurance.

The father filed a petition to modify to reduce his child support.  The trial court calculated the revised child support by imputing income to him at $9 per hour for a 40 hour week, and it also apparently “imputed” a $400 cost for health insurance coverage, even though there was no evidence the father had paid any cost for health insurance. This resulted in a negative child support amount, so the trial court suspended the father’s child support obligation pending the mother’s proving “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he was financially able to pay it. The mother appealed.

The mother’s first argument was that the father had failed to prove that the reduction in his income was “substantial and continuing.” Specifically, she argued that the reduction might be only temporary, because USX might recall the father at any time. She also pointed out that he would be eligible to begin receiving a pension from USX in August of 2017 which would pay up to $2,500 per month. The appeals court rejected that argument, finding that the trial court had sufficient evidence before it to determine that the father’s reduction in income was substantial and continuing.

The mother also argued that the trial court had abused its discretion by suspending rather than simply reducing the father’s child support, when he had not requested this relief. The suspension was based on the trial court’s calculation of a negative child support amount, which was in turn based on its including that $400 credit for health insurance when the father wasn’t paying it. The appeals court found this to be error. “[T]he evidence does not support the trial court’s determination that the father was to be given a $400 credit toward his child-support obligation because he was paying for health-insurance coverage for the children.” Because it was error, the appeals court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for a recalculation of child support.

Lee’s reflections: These children are fortunate that Mom makes $89,000 as an area supervisor for a fast food restaurant. The kids are going to be okay. Dad is enrolled in community college learning to be an electrician, and he will be eligible to begin receiving his USX pension before this year is out, so he’s going to be okay too. That doesn’t keep this from being an awful time for everybody, especially Dad, but we can hope it’s temporary.

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