Still No Retroactive Downward Modification of Child Support

July 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

Every now and then I hear testimony that the party wants me to extend downward modification of child support retroactively, either to the date of filing, or to the date of the event that warranted a reduction in child support.

The answer, as you probably know, is that Mississippi law has long barred retroactive downward modification in child support cases.

In the COA case of Frazier v. Frazier, handed down June 25, 2013, appellant Paul Frazier asked the appellate court to change the rule and allow retroactive reduction, although he apparently had not pled for it at the trial-court level, and he acknowledged his uphill climb on appeal. Judge Fair stated the unanimous court’s opinion:

¶19. Though he did not affirmatively seek retroactive modification of the child support that he did not pay in full, Paul asks this Court to deviate from both long-established case law and legislative mandate and grant him retroactive relief. He begins his brief on appeal by admitting:

This is a case about the retroactive modification of child support. A husband sought a change in support because he had lost his job and was making considerably less than at the time of divorce. The trial court modified the child support. However, it took well over a year to obtain the relief, and in the meantime the husband incurred heavy child support obligations he could not meet.

Despite ordering a modification, the trial court did not order a reduction in his past due child support, even though the husband . . . had timely filed and pursued the modification. In the interests of equity and public policy, the Court must fashion a remedy for good faith litigants who are forced into extreme situations like this one.

¶20. Recently, in A.M.L. v. J.W.L., 98 So. 3d 1001, 1016-17 (¶¶40-42) (Miss. 2012), the Supreme Court of Mississippi addressed that specific issue and manifested its intent to continue adherence to its prior line of cases as well as defer to the statutory provisions of Mississippi Code Annotated section 43-19-34(4) (Rev. 2009), which allows retroactive increases in child support but expressly prohibits retroactive decreases.

¶21. Paul asks us to essentially repeal that statute and overrule a long line of supreme court authority, or at the very least to carve out an exception for decisions unduly delayed through no fault of the obligor. He admits, however, that:

Over twenty years ago, the Supreme Court determined that it would not allow a retroactive modification in child support on public policy grounds. Cumberland v. Cumberland, 564 So. 2d 839, 847 (Miss. 1990). The essential point was that a judicial decree ordered the child support, and a parent should not simply ignore it without leave of court. Id. “The rationale behind this view is not difficult to divine,” the Court held, since it wished to prohibit “self help” when a parent might seek to “modify his or her obligation with impunity.” Id.

After Cumberland, the Legislature saw fit to constrain retroactive modification further. It decreed that “[a]ny order for the support of minor children, whether entered through the judicial system or through an expedited process, shall not be subject to a downward retroactive modification.” Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-34(4) (the same law allowed an upward retroactive modification).

Paul relies upon and quotes from the four-member special concurrence penned by Justice Pierce in A.M.L., which posits allowing retroactive downward modification at least sparingly and in cases of crowded dockets and dilatory tactics causing unreasonable delay. A.M.L., 98 So. 3d at 1024-25 (¶70). In this case a crowded docket is obvious, but there is no clear evidence of dilatory tactics on Sharon’s part. On the other hand, there is some indication Paul caused a significant delay by insisting on a subpoena before providing his military records. Moreover, dilatory tactics have been held as justifying other relief, including monetary relief, even in child support cases. That remedy was suggested in Cumberland and considered and declined by the chancellor in this case.

¶22. Downward retroactive modification of child support remains prohibited by both statute and stare decisis provided by our highest court, which we must follow.

The “monetary relief” mentioned by Judge Fair refers to footnote 6, at page 847, in Cumberland, which says: “Where the non-movant engages in dilatory tactics and causes unreasonable delay, the trial court should not hesitate to exercise its inherent powers and order sanctions as may be appropriate.” In a previous footnote, as well as in the body of its opinion, the court specifically ruled out retroactive reduction.

I might add that retroactive downward modification has another inherent impediment in that each installment of child support becomes vested and a judgment in favor of the payee as and when due, and may not be reduced or modified by the trial court. See, e.g., Brand v. Brand, 482 So.2d 236, 237 (Miss. 1996).

If Paul is to change the law, he will have to look to the MSSC to get that done, which will now require him to file for rehearing before the COA, and a subsequent petition for cert to the MSSC. He may be staking his chips on that four-member minority in A.M.L.  and the hope that turnover in the meanwhile may produce a more favorable result. We’ll see.

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