In certain situations, such as when a child turns eighteen, it may be possible to petition the court for modification of child support. A change in financial circumstances may also warrant modification, although there are many legal considerations. A recent case decided by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Mitchell v. Hall (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2016), examines modification of child support and explains the surrounding law.
In Mitchell, the father filed a petition to modify his support amount in anticipation of his oldest child reaching the age of 18, and to reduce his remaining obligation for his two younger children based on a decrease in income. The trial court adopted the findings of the Special Master approving the reduction of support for the 18-year-old as of the hearing date, but, after evaluating the father’s financial records and other evidence, determined that the father was willfully and voluntarily underemployed. On appeal, the father argued that the trial court erred in finding the effective date of modification as that of the hearing date, instead of the earlier date on which the child turned 18. The father also contended that the trial court erred in finding that he was willfully and voluntarily underemployed.
Pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-101(f)(1), no child support order may be modified retroactively prior to the date that an action for modification is filed and notice of the action has been mailed to the opposing party. In Huntley v. Huntley, 61 S.W.3d 329 (Tenn.Ct.App.2001), the Court of Appeals held that the trial court has the discretion to order the modification effective date as of the date of the petition, final hearing, or any appropriate date in between.
On appeal, the court held that these principles do not apply to a reduction of child support due to a child’s reaching the age of majority and expiration of the parental duty to support. The court noted that, except in certain statutorily defined situations, a court has no authority to order child support beyond majority or time specified by statute. Consequently, an order of support expires at the time the child reaches majority. The court also noted that a reduction in child support due to the emancipation of a child should not be considered a modification under Tenn.Code Ann. 35–5–101(f)(1), but instead, is simply the application of law derived from the legal principle that parents generally owe no duty of support to their adult children. As such, proration of child support for an emancipated child is not a retroactive modification of the child support award, and its application does not require a petition to, or an order form, the court.
The appeals court, therefore, found that the trial court erred in naming the effective date past the child’s eighteenth birthday and reversed on that issue. The court, however, did affirm the finding that the father was willfully and voluntarily underemployed, as it was supported by material evidence.
If a substantial change in circumstance has affected your ability to pay your child support obligation, it may be possible to file a petition for modification. At the Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, our family law attorneys can assist individuals in a wide range of legal matters, including divorce, child custody, modification of support orders, and more. To discuss your situation with one of our seasoned attorneys, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.