Reversed little one help ruling raises query of unintended penalties after Arkansas Supreme Courtroom order
A parent’s legal obligation to contribute to the financial care and costs of raising his or her child. In the context of custody or divorce action it refers to the money legally owed by one parent to the other for the expenses incurred for children of the marriage.
FAYETTEVILLE — An Arkansas Supreme Court administrative order that revised how child support is calculated tripped up a local judge and has at least one judge on the Court of Appeals questioning whether unintended consequences harm rather than help children.
The Arkansas Supreme Court changed Administrative Order No. 10 for all support orders entered after June 30, 2020. The order includes guidelines for calculating child support based, at least in part, on the concept children should receive the same proportion of parental income that they would have received had the parents stayed together and shared financial resources.
The Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed and remanded a domestic relations case involving James David and Brittany David saying Washington County Circuit Judge John Threet erred by not following the revised rule. The appeals court didn’t say whether the dollar amount of child support awarded by Threet was actually wrong.
The appeals court told Threet to go back and determine both parties’ incomes, calculate the amount of support required under the guidelines and state whether he deviated from the presumptive child support calculation set by the administrative order.
“If the circuit court finds that the presumptive amount of child support calculated by using the new guidelines is unjust or inappropriate, then the court must explain in writing the reasons for its deviation,” according to the opinion.
The sticky issue in the David case is whether the revised guidelines allow James David to make more money than when the parties drew up their original child support agreement, but pay less in child support.
The parties had a previous support agreement for their three children, calculated based upon the difference between the parties’ net take-home pay, that was superseded by the revised court rule. James David contended, under the new guidelines, he should owe less in child support because he shared joint custody with equal time and he was paying a higher percentage of his income than was Brittany David, a full-time college student.
Brittany David filed a petition for modification of their child support claiming James David’s income increased substantially while hers had not. The Arkansas Supreme Court changed Administrative Order No. 10 while the David case wound through the court system.
The new order provides “each parent’s share is that parent’s prorated share of the two parents’ combined income.” Alimony is now deducted in the calculation. The pro-rata charted amount establishes the base level of child support” the payor parent must pay the payee parent.
Revised Administrative Order No. 10 requires a judge, among other things, to consider payment of child-care expenses and health care expenses and, in the case of joint custody, an adjustment for actual days spent with each parent. The adjustment for time spent was a new calculation under the revised order for the Davids.
Threet said he didn’t think it was fair to decrease Brittany David’s child support by a substantial amount when the only change in circumstance was James David’s income had gone up by a substantial amount.
However, Judge Kenneth Hixson’s majority opinion said the revised family support chart and guidelines must be followed regardless of the outcome or the judge must specify the reasons for any deviation from the guidelines. The court acknowledged the new guideline was a game-changer, Hixson wrote.
“Our task is not to question the perhaps unanticipated consequences of the revised order; rather, our task is to interpret the revised order as written,” Hixson wrote.
Judge Rita Gruber wrote a concurring opinion airing her concern the revised order has unanticipated and unintended consequences that negatively affect the best interest of the children it was designed to protect.
Gruber wrote it appears inconsistent and counterintuitive to follow an order allowing payors to seek a reduction in child support when they have a significant increase in income.
Child support is an obligation owed to the child, Gruber wrote.
“I find it difficult to accept that a payor parent’s increase in income may be used to justify a decrease in child support significantly affecting the welfare and best interest of the children,” Gruber wrote.