November 12, 2015 § 3 Comments
Occasionally some lawyer will approach me and ask that I sign an Agreed Judgment, signed off by all concerned, that settles a contempt issue. The petition charged that the respondent had something like a $3,500 arrearage, but now the judgment says he is current. “What happened to the arrearage?” I ask. The answer is something like, “Oh, we agreed to let that go if he would agree to supervised visitation from now on,” or “He really owes $3,500, but we agreed to forgive that if he would just pay on time in the future.”
Well, you just can’t do that, not even by agreement.
In the recent COA decision in Caldwell v. Atwood, handed down November 3, 2015, the court noted at ¶20 that, “While the law allows for credit to be made for child-support payments through additional physical support by the noncustodial parent, it does not permit those payments to simply be ‘purged,’ whether by an agreement or order.”
This is a subject about which I have posted here before. You simply can’t contract away an arrearage, and, for that matter, you can’t contract away your minor children’s right to future support.
In Caldwell, the chancellor had found Thomas Atwood in arrears in child support, but did not adjudicate an amount, or order him to pay it. Instead, the chancellor ordered him to “purge” himself of contempt by paying future support equal to 14% of his adjusted gross income. The COA reversed, holding that it was error for the judge in essence to forgive the arrearage. As the court went on to say in its decision:
¶19. It is well settled that “court-ordered child-support payments vest in the child as they accrue and may not thereafter be modified or forgiven, only paid.” [Harrington v. Harrington, 648 So.2d 543, 545 (Miss.1994) … at (¶14) (quoting Varner v. Varner, 588 So. 2d 428, 434 (Miss. 1991)). “Such benefits belong to the child, and the custodial parent has a fiduciary duty to hold them for the use of the child.” Id. at (¶13) (quoting Smith v. Smith, 20 So. 3d 670, 674 (¶13) (Miss. 2009)).
The COA remanded the case for the trial court to determine the amount of arrearage owed to Caldwell, and to formulate a payment plan.
On a related point, there seems to be a vogue whereby the divorcing parents agree to joint legal and physical custody, and they use that arrangement to justify no child support, I guess due to the “shared custodial arrangement.” I do not believe in most cases that this is in the best interest of the children. To me, the custody arrangement is being driven not by what the parents truly believe is best for the children, but rather by the desire to create a mechanism that the judge will approve that will eliminate child support. I look at these with great skepticism. The parents have to convince me that the arrangement is genuinely in the best interest of the children. And, if there is a discrepancy in income, I require the parent with greater income to pay child support based on the difference. When parties learn that there is a way to get out of paying, they will exploit that loophole to gain an advantage in divorce negotiations that can have a negative effect on the children.
October 20, 2010 § 2 Comments
It is axiomatic in Mississippi law that every child support payment is vested when due and any arrearage may not be forgiven, reduced or done away with by the chancellor. Moreover, the child’s right to his parent’s support cannot be bargained or contracted away by his parents. Calton v. Calton, 485 So.2d 309, 310-311 (Miss.1986).
The rule is not ironclad, however. The Mississippi legislature carved out a narrow exception in MCA § 93-11-71, which states in part:
… upon a motion filed by the obligor and a finding of clear and convincing evidence including negative DNA testing that the obligor is not the biological father of the child or children for whom support has been ordered, the court shall disestablish paternity and may forgive any child support arrears of the obligor for the child or children determined by the court not to be the biological child or children of the obligor, if the court makes a written finding that, based on the totality of the circumstances, the forgiveness is equitable under the circumstances.” [Emphasis added]
Caveat: The statute would not apply in the circumstances spelled out in Lee v. Lee, 12 So.3d 548 (Miss. App. 2009), which is the subject of a previous post.
ALSO: § 93-11-71 self-repeals on July 1, 2011, although it has been re-enacted previously.