What does it Take to Forfeit the Right to Support?

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ever since the MSSC’s 1980 decision in Hambrick v. Prestwood, it has been the law in Mississippi that a parent’s duty to support a college-age child is dependent on the child maintaining a good relationship with the payor.

That principle has been extended and clarified over the years. The COA’s September 29, 2015, decision in Lowrey v. Simmons included a concise explanation of the current state of the law on point. Judge Wilson for the court:

¶23. Under Mississippi law, a child generally will not forfeit support from a non-custodial parent unless his or her actions toward the parent are “clear and extreme.” See Caldwell v. Caldwell, 579 So. 2d 543, 548 (Miss. 1991). However, where the child is college-aged, a “lesser finding” that the child’s actions have caused a deteriorated relationship with the parent is sufficient to justify termination of support obligations, including obligations to pay for college. Stasny v. Wages, 116 So. 3d 195, 197-98 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013). Under Hambrick v. Prestwood, 382 So. 2d 474, 477 (Miss. 1980), a parent’s duty to support and pay college expenses of a college-aged child “is dependent, not only on the child’s aptitude and qualifications for college, but on whether the child’s behavior toward, and relationship with the father, makes the child worthy of the additional effort and financial burden that will be placed on him.” Although Hambrick involved court-ordered support and college expenses, we have since applied its holding to cases, such as this one, involving obligations to which a parent has agreed as part of a comprehensive and voluntary divorce settlement. See Stasny, 116 So. 3d at 198, 199 (¶¶14-15, 17); but see Markofski v. Holzhauer, 799 So. 2d 162, 170 (¶38) (Miss. Ct. App. 2001) (McMillin, C.J., joined by Southwick, P.J., and Thomas and Lee, JJ., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (criticizing the extension of Hambrick’s holding to an obligation voluntarily undertaken as part of a contractual divorce settlement).

¶24. In this case, the chancellor did not cite Hambrick or any of its progeny as the basis for his ruling. Instead, he cited a “substantial and material change in circumstances”—the erosion of the parent-child relationship and failure to reconcile—as his reason for terminating Ryan’s obligations. Nevertheless, the chancellor’s decision appears to track the underlying rationale of the Hambrick line of cases, and Ryan has defended it on that basis in this appeal. Cf. Finch v. Finch, 137 So. 3d 227, 231, 237-38 (¶¶5, 35) (Miss. 2014) (chancellor found son’s “animosity toward his father” was a “material change in circumstances” justifying termination of father’s obligation to pay educational expenses; Supreme Court affirmed under Hambrick). Therefore, we will apply the applicable Hambrick standard.

¶25. Although the Hambrick standard is by no means a bright-line rule, it has never been applied to terminate a parent’s support obligations in a case such as this, where the chancellor has found, with substantial support in the record, that the parent is the primary cause of the erosion of the parent-child relationship—indeed, that the parent is guilty of “inexcusable parental neglect”—and the child’s essential fault is in failing to respond to a neglectful, absentee parent’s belated efforts at reconciliation. For example, in Hambrick, the daughter had no contact with her father for six or seven years, she acknowledged that her dislike of him bordered on hatred, there was a strong inference that the mother was partially to blame for her animosity, and “[t]here [was] nothing in this record that would justify [the daughter’s] attitude toward her father.” Hambrick, 382 So. 2d at 477 (emphasis added). In contrast, in Polk v. Polk, 589 So. 2d 123, 131 (Miss. 1991), the Supreme Court applied Hambrick and reversed a chancellor’s decision not to order the father to pay the daughter’s college expenses because “the problems [between them] appear[ed] to be partly [the father’s] fault” and the father “seem[ed] to have abandoned [the daughter], either emotionally or financially.” (Emphasis added). In light of the father’s partial fault and prior abandonment of the child, the Court remanded the issue for further consideration, even though the daughter’s conduct toward her father was egregious. She had written letters to her father’s family that accused him of immoral acts and stated that he would “rot in hell” and that she would no longer acknowledge him as her father, and she had attempted to persuade local newspapers to publish her accusations, which the Court found “disturbing.” See id. at 130 31; id. at 131-32 (Lee, C.J., dissenting) (“[T]he attitude and actions of Kawanis [Polk] toward her father . . . have been much more egregious than that in Hambrick.“).

¶26. Thus, under Hambrick and Polk, a father is not entitled to full relief from otherwise valid obligations to pay for the support and college expenses of his child — here, obligations that he voluntarily accepted as one component of a comprehensive divorce settlement —based on an estrangement that is in large measure of his own making. Here, as the chancellor found, Ryan neglected his child beginning in at least 2010 and continuing into 2012. This abandonment included an especially “inexcusable” period of neglect when her mother was hospitalized for months, hundreds of miles away, with a life-threatening illness. During this difficult time in his daughter’s life, Ryan lived nearby but never so much as visited her. To be sure, in 2012, near the time he filed the instant complaint, Ryan did attempt to reconcile with Jilanna; and the chancellor found that Jilanna, not Ryan, bears primary responsibility for their failure to reconcile. We do not question these findings, and we emphasize that we accept all of the chancellor’s findings of fact, which are supported by substantial evidence. However, we hold that Hambrick does not apply to the facts found by the chancellor. Where a father’s own neglect is the proximate cause of the erosion of his relationship with his child, the child’s resistance to belated efforts to reconcile will not relieve the father of obligations of support and to pay college expenses that he voluntarily assumed as part and parcel of his own comprehensive divorce settlement. Accordingly, the part of the judgment suspending and terminating Ryan’s support obligations, including his obligation to pay college expenses, is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. [Fn omitted].

I think it’s fair to say that most chancellors require pretty strong proof to justify termination of a child-support obligation based on estrangement. Many years ago I defended a case in which the daughter would have absolutely nothing to do with the father because he had literally walked out on the family in the dead of night, leaving them destitute and in a half-finished home. The father never made any bona fide effort to reconcile with the daughter. The chancellor refused his plea to terminate the support obligation based on his own conduct. I am sure many of you have had similar experiences.

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