Cleaning Up After an Incomplete Divorce Settlement

What does it mean when the husband and wife in a divorce case agree that child support will be “in accordance with the child support guidelines” when the non-custodial parent’s income exceeds those guidelines? Is child support set at the maximum guideline amount? Is the court free to set child support in its discretion?

In Tyson v. Tyson, Case No. 2707557 (Ala. Civ. App. April 24, 2009), Mom’s and Dad’s attorneys stipulated at the beginning of the divorce trial that the parties had agreed on joint legal custody, for Mom to have primary physical custody, and for Dad to have “an open visitation schedule.” They also agreed that child support should be calculated and awarded in compliance with the guidelines in Ala. R. Jud. Admin. 32. The parties (apparently) proceeded to litigate the other issues of their divorce.

Among other terms of the final judment of divorce, the Russell County Circuit Court ordered Dad to pay an arrearage of child support, even though he had been paying the amount agreed to by the parties in a pendente lite settlement. The appeals court affirmed on this issue in response to Dad’s appeal of it, because he failed to raise it with the trial court.

The trial court also ordered Dad to transfer his lease on the parties’ rental property to Mom, and it ordered Mom to make the mortgage payments on it. Dad appealed this, arguing that the trial court couldn’t issue this order without joining the mortgage holder, Mom’s stepfather, as a party. The appeals court affirmed on this issue, too, stating that the absence of Mom’s stepfather as a party did not affect the court’s ability to accord complete relief to the parties.

The issue that occupied the bulk of the appeals court’s opinion, and the one on which we shall focus, is the trial court’s setting of the child support at $1250 per month. Dad appealed this, arguing that the trial court exceeded its discretion in setting child support at this amount (in excess of the uppermost limit of the child support guidelines). Note: this case was not subject to the new Alabama child support guidelines that took effect January 1, 2009.

Black-letter law on the setting of child support when the parties’ incomes exceed the guidelines is from Dyas v. Dyas, 683 So. 2d 971 (Ala. Civ. App. 1995), and the Tyson appeals court quoted this language from the Dyas opinion: “When the [parties] combined adjusted gross income exceeds the uppermost limit of the child support schedule [of Rule 32, Ala. R. Jud. Admin.], the amount of child support awarded must rationally relate to the reasonable and necessary needs of the child, taking into account the lifestyle to which the child was accustomed and the standard of living the child enjoyed before the divorce, and must reasonably relate to the obligor’s ability to pay for those needs. … To avoid a finding of an abuse of discretion on appeal, a trial court’s judgment of child support must satisfy both prongs.”

The Tyson appeals court acknowledged that the trial court had before it evidence from which it could have concluded that Dad’s income was $150,000, well in excess of the guidelines, and that it did indeed state a finding of fact to that effect.  The appeals court said the trial court lacked evidence on the other prong, however, the reasonable needs of the child.

“In the present case, the record is devoid of any evidence of the child’s reasonable and necessary needs. Just as we did in Burgett [v. Burgett, 995 So. 2d 907 (Ala. Civ. App. 2008)], we reverse the portion of the judgment setting an amount of child support and remand for further proceedings that will allow the court to determine the reasonable and necessary needs of the [child].” Tyson at 7.