In a recent opinion, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee addressed the issue of voluntary unemployment in a child support case. In State ex rel. Brown v. Brown (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 8, 2016), the mother filed a post-divorce petition seeking an increase in child support. The father opposed the petition, alleging that the mother was voluntarily underemployed. The trial court found that there was a significant variance between the current support obligation and that set by the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. The trial court further found that the mother was not voluntarily underemployed and ordered an increase in the father’s child support obligation. The father subsequently appealed that decision.
In Tennessee, setting child support is a discretionary matter, bound by the child support guidelines. The initial inquiry in a petition for child support modification is whether there is a significant variance between the current obligation and that set by the guidelines. Even if a significant variance is proven, the trial court may deny a petition for modification if the variance is the result of willful or voluntary underemployment. Specifically, the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines provide that additional gross income can be imputed to a parent if the court finds that the parent is willfully or voluntarily underemployed, if there is no reliable evidence of the parent’s income, or if the parent owns a substantial amount of non-income producing assets. However, if a parent’s reasons for working in a lower paying job are reasonable and in good faith, the court will not find him or her to be willfully and voluntarily underemployed.
In Brown, it was undisputed that the mother’s current income created a significant variance when compared to the guidelines. However, the father contended that the variance was the result of the mother’s intentional choice to leave her employment in favor of a lesser paying position. On appeal, the court affirmed the decision of the trial court. The court noted that the mother’s reason for quitting her job was because she was losing parenting time with her three-year-old child, due to the long commute. The mother had testified that the child’s best interest would be better served by her spending more quality time with the child.
In addition, the court found that the mother obtained full-time employment with another employer, and she was attending school full-time to obtain a degree that would result in a much higher paying job upon completion. Accordingly, the appeals court found that the mother was motivated by the child’s best interests and that under the circumstances, her reason for working in a lower paying job was reasonable. The court, therefore, affirmed the decision of the trial court modifying the child support obligation.
Seeking advice from an experienced divorce attorney can be beneficial in protecting your interests during legal proceedings. At the Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, our family law attorneys provide guidance and comprehensive representation to individuals in a variety of matters, including divorce, child custody, modification of support orders, and more. To discuss your case with one of our knowledgeable attorneys, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.