The Duty to Pay Child Support for a Step-Great-Grandchild
August 28, 2017 § 1 Comment
Thomas Dennis (Dennis) and Sheila Sims (Sims) married in 1994. Sheila had a daughter before the marriage, Renee Wright. Renee had a daughter, Courtney. Courtney had a child, JRH. Thus, JRH is the step-great-granddaughter of Thomas.
In 2005, DHS became involved when JRH’s parents got into legal trouble. In order to keep JRH out of “the system,” Dennis and Sims filed a petition for custody in chancery court. All parties agreed for the Dennis and Sims to have custody, with the parents having visitation rights, and the parents agreed to pay modest child support. The chancellor approved the agreement in March, 2006.
Six months later, Dennis and Sims separated. In 2008, Sims filed for divorce, and on June 23, 2009, the court granted a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences. The PSA incorporated into the divorce judgment provided that Sims would have sole custody of JRH, and that Dennis would pay her $400 a month in child support. The agreement recited that child support was to continue until:
” … (1) the minor child marries; (2) the minor child enlists in any branch of the armed services; (3) the minor child is no longer attending school on a full-time basis prior to the age of twenty-one years; (4) the minor child reaches the age of twenty-one years; or (5) at any time that a court of competent jurisdiction shall change, alter, modify, or terminate this obligation.”
Over time following the divorce, JRH and Dennis became estranged to the point that JRH refused to have anything to do with Dennis. Sims refused to make JRH have any contact with him.
In 2015, Dennis filed a petition to modify the custody and support agreement, asking to relinquish custodial rights to JRH and to terminate child support. He pled that he (a) “wrongfully believed” in the divorce that he had some legal duty to pay child support, (b) that he had never developed any genuine relationship with the child, (c) that the child refused to have a relationship with him, and (d) that the natural parents still exercised visitation and had a child support obligation for the child.
After a hearing, the chancellor denied Dennis any relief. He ruled that there had been no material change in circumstances, and that JRH at only 12 years of age had no appreciation of the legal significance of the refusal to have a relationship. Dennis appealed.
In Dennis v. Dennis, decided August 3, 2017, the MSSC affirmed. In its opinion, the majority acknowledged that a person acting in loco parentis is not obligated to support a child once the relationship has ceased, in the absence of consanguinity, legal adoption, or the knowing and voluntary assumption of the obligation. Williams v. Williams, 843 So.2d 720, 723 (Miss. 2003). The court’s opi nion, written by Justice Chamberlin, went on to distinguish Dennis’s situation:
¶14. The analysis, however, does not end here under the facts of this case. Here, Dennis agreed to provide child support for J.R.H. in the Child Custody and Support and Property Settlement Agreement incorporated into his irreconcilable-differences divorce decree. Therefore, the issue is not whether Dennis has a statutory duty to pay child support, but rather whether he has a quasicontractual obligation to do so. “We do not hold that a man who is not a child’s biological father can be absolved of his support obligations in all cases. Those who have adopted the child or voluntarily and knowingly assumed the obligation of support will be required to continue doing so.” [Williams, supra]. at n.1 (citing NPA, 380 S.E.2d at 181) (emphasis added).
¶15. In Mississippi, one of the steps parties must take to obtain an irreconcilable differences divorce is to enter into a written settlement agreement that provides “for the custody and maintenance of any children of that marriage and for the settlement of any property rights between the parties.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(2) (Rev. 2013). The parties may provide the chancellor with such an agreement or, if the parties cannot agree as to certain issues, consent in writing to the divorce and allow the chancellor to decide the contested issues. See id.; see also Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(3) (Rev. 2013). The chancellor then determines whether the terms of the agreement “are adequate and sufficient.” Id. In
West v. West, this Court emphasized that these “[S]ettlement agreements entered into by divorcing spouses and judicially approved under our Irreconcilable Differences Divorce Act become a part of the decree and enforceable as such as though entered by the court following contested proceedings.” When the Irreconcilable Differences Divorce Act has been complied with, the custody, support, alimony, and property settlement
agreement becomes a part of the final decree for all intents and purposes. If the agreement is sufficient to comply with the statute, that is enough to render it a part of the final decree of divorce as if the decree had been rendered by the chancery court following a contested divorce proceeding.
“[P]roperty settlement agreements are contractual obligations.” The provisions of a property settlement agreement executed prior to the dissolution of marriage must be interpreted by courts as any other contract. In East v. East, 493 So. 2d 927, 931–32 (Miss. 1986), we held “[a] true and genuine property settlement agreement is no different from any other contract, and the mere fact that it is between a divorcing husband and wife, and incorporated in a divorce decree, does not change its character.” West v. West, 891 So. 2d 203, 210 (Miss. 2004) (internal citations omitted).
¶16. This case is, to an extent, similar to Lee v. Lee, 12 So. 3d 548 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). In that case, the Lees were married in 1994. Lee, 12 So. 3d at 549. During their marriage, the wife gave birth to two children. Id. In 2004, the husband “had a home DNA test performed to determine whether he was [the second child’s] biological father.” Id. The test showed a zero percent chance that he had fathered the second child. Id. The next year, however, the Lees swore that both children were born to the marriage in their joint bill for divorce and the husband agreed to pay child support for both children in the child-custody and settlement agreement. Id. Two years after the divorce was granted, the husband petitioned the chancellor “to reverse the determination that he is [the second child’s] biological father and release him of all parental responsibilities, including child support, as to [the second child].” Id. The chancellor denied the husband’s request. Id.
¶17. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision of the chancellor. Id. at 552. The court reasoned that the husband “knew a year before the judgment of divorce was entered that [the second child] was not his child. Despite this knowledge, he voluntarily agreed to support [the second child] and to exercise parental visitation with her.” Id. at 551 (emphasis added). The Court of Appeals distinguished Lee from Williams, where this Court allowed a man to discontinue his child-support payments when he determined, after his divorce, that he was paying support for someone who was not his child. Williams, So. 2d at 721, 723.
¶18. As in Lee, the evidence shows that Dennis knowingly and voluntarily agreed to pay child support for J.R.H. even though he knew he was not the child’s father. [Fn omitted] Though Dennis claims he wrongfully believed he had a duty to support J.R.H., the Agreement states that “Husband and Wife each fully understand the terms and conditions of this Agreement and believe it to be just, fair, adequate, and reasonable . . . .” Under the section titled “VOLUNTARY EXECUTION,” the Agreement states that “[e]ach party acknowledges that he or she has read this Agreement in its entirety, understands its terms, consents to its terms, and enters into this Agreement voluntarily of the uses and purposes therein stated.”
¶19. As mentioned above, these child-custody and property-settlement agreements are quasicontracts in which both spouses consent to certain terms in order to obtain an irreconcilable-differences divorce. Thus, we find that a bargained-for exchange occurred whereby Dennis got something in return for paying child support: a divorce. Even more, this Court has stated:
In property and financial matters between the divorcing spouses themselves, there is no question that, absent fraud or overreaching, the parties should be allowed broad latitude. When the parties have reached agreement and the chancery court has approved it, we ought enforce it and take as dim a view of efforts to modify it, as we ordinarily do when persons seek relief from their improvident contracts.
Bell v. Bell, 572 So. 2d 841, 844 (Miss. 1990) (emphasis added) (citations ommitted [sic]).
¶20. Under the facts of this case, we find that Dennis voluntarily agreed to pay child support for J.R.H. We disagree with the dissent that a chancellor does not have the authority to accept a settlement agreement that governs child-support payments for a child not of the marriage. A chancellor’s power to accept such an agreement is granted by Section 159 of the Constitution. Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159. While a chancellor’s power is codified by statute, we consistently have held that a chancellor has broad discretion over child-support agreements. Short v. Short, 131 So. 3d 1149, 1151 (Miss. 2014). Further, a chancellor’s discretion extends to matters that are not codified. See Logan v. Logan, 730 So. 2d 1124, 1126 (Miss. 1998) (recognizing the doctrine of in loco parentis within the child-custody context).
That takes care of the argument that Dennis had no legal obligation to the child, and thuse should be relieved. What about his argument that the original agreement should be modified to terminate support due to the child’s refusal to have a relationship? Here’s how the court addressed it:
¶21. Notwithstanding their contractual nature, child-support and property-settlement agreements may be modified when there is an after-arising material or substantial change in the circumstances among the parties. See Shipley v. Ferguson, 638 So. 2d 1295, 1298 (Miss. 1994). Dennis next argues that J.R.H.’s refusal to see or speak to him constitutes clear and extreme conduct that entitles him to terminate his support obligations. We disagree.
¶22. In Caldwell v. Caldwell, 579 So. 2d 543, 548 (Miss. 1991), this Court stated that “[t]he amount of money that the noncustodial parent is required to pay for the support of his minor children should not be determined by the amount of love the children show toward that parent.” Later in that opinion, however, this Court recognized that a material change in circumstances could arise from a minor child’s actions toward a noncustodial parent which would allow the parent to terminate his or her support obligations. Id. “[A] minor child as young as fifteen years old could forfeit his support from the noncustodial parent through his actions toward that parent, but those actions must be clear and extreme.” Marshall , 859 So.2d at 389-90 (citing Caldwell, 579 So. 2d at 548) (emphasis added).
¶23. In Roberts v. Brown, an eighteen-year-old daughter testified “that she did not love [her father], that she did not want to visit or communicate with him, that she had had time to visit him but chose not to, and that if the court ordered her to visit her father, she would not do so.” Roberts v. Brown, 805 So. 2d 649, 650 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002). Even more, the daughter previously had accused her father of rape, a charge of which the father was later acquitted. Id. at 650-51. The Court of Appeals found that the conduct of the daughter was clear and extreme conduct that justified the termination of the father’s support obligations. Id. at 653-54.
¶24. We hold that J.R.H.’s current refusal to see or speak to Dennis is not the type of clear and extreme conduct envisioned in Caldwell or shown in Roberts, especially in light of the child’s age and Dennis’s alleged statement. Though it is undisputed that J.R.H. currently is unwilling to have a relationship with Dennis, Sims testified that Dennis told J.R.H. that he was happy that the child’s grandmother had died. The chancellor also noted that J.R.H. was only twelve years old when this case was in the chancery court; therefore, J.R.H. would have been even younger when this alleged statement was made. If Dennis indeed made these statements, it would be unjust for him now to take advantage of such fact. At this time, the record does not indicate that the chancellor manifestly erred in his Caldwell analysis. [Fn omitted]
A few observations tomorrow.