What Happened to this Request for Child Support for a Disabled Adult?

There’s no doubt that raising children is an expensive proposition.  In fact, calculating child support payments is often one of the main issues in divorce cases.  In many instances, the answers are somewhat standard and come with an end date.  However, what if it appears that the child’s handicaps will prevent future independence?   The court’s recent ruling on a request for a disabled adult may interest you.

Woodward v. Woodward was decided by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, at Knoxville on July 9, 2018.  A brief history of the case is contained in the court opinion. Joan N. Woodward filed a divorce complaint against her husband Dr. Daniel C. Woodward in July of 2013. The couple has one daughter, Bailey, whose disability requires full-time care.

In conjunction with resolving their divorce, the Woodwards mediated issues concerning Bailey’s care. Although Bailey was already beyond the age of minority, it does not appear that either Joan or Daniel questioned the extent of their daughter’s handicaps.

In 2014, the court signed the final order of divorce. The parties agreed that Joan would stay home with Bailey. No child support order was entered, although the court did award spousal support. A year later, Daniel returned to court, claiming a change in circumstances. He requested that the court reduce alimony payments. In response, Joan asked for permanent child support for the couple’s disabled daughter.

Court Ruled Against Child Support

Daniel was able to show the court that his financial earnings were different than they were when alimony was initially set.  The court considered this a change in circumstances and lowered alimony payments to $3000 per month.

In the meantime, Joan maintained that expenses related to Bailey’s care were extensive. She asked the court to consider a permanent child support order to help with those costs.

One problem.  The application for child support was a post-judgment request. Again, there was no child support order in place at the time of the divorce. This would represent a new order.

Why does this matter? According to Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-101(k)(1), there are a couple of caveats when it comes to child support once the child is over age 21. For one, the court recognizes that the court “may continue child support beyond a child’s minority for the benefit of a child who is handicapped or disabled . . . until such child reaches [21] years of age.”

In this case, there was no child support order in place…to continue. The statute goes on to say more when it comes to children who are “severely disabled and living under the care and supervision of a parent.”  If the court determines these conditions apply, it may continue to impose child support obligations without regard to any age limitations.

The Appeals Court agreed with the ruling of the lower court. Since there was no child support order in effect, it could not continue an order that did not exist.

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Family law cases do not necessarily end when the divorce decree is signed. If you believe your circumstances have changed and you are seeking post-judgment relief, MHPS would like to assist you. Contact us to see how we can help.

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