Tennessee Appellate Court Affirms Lower Court’s Decision In Awarding Mother Retroactive Child Support

In Tennessee, biological parents must support their children until they reach the age of majority per the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines and Tennessee Code  Annotated 36-2-311(a)(11)(a). A parent’s obligation to support exists regardless of whether there is a Retroactive Child Supportcourt order and regardless of whether the parents were ever married. When paternity of a child born out of wedlock is established, the trial court is required to address not only the child’s need for future support, but also the father’s obligation to pay past support.

The facts of In Re Jake S. are as follows: Child was born out of wedlock in 2011 to Jeffrey S. (Father) and Geneva P. (Mother). Mother and Father were in an intermittent romantic relationship for the first couple of years of Child’s life. The parties ended their relationship sometime in summer 2012. On August 24, 2012, Father filed a petition to establish paternity. He also requested a determination of custody, visitation, and child support. During the pendency of Father’s petition, the court required Father to submit to random drug screens and granted him supervised parenting time for four hours per week.

A juvenile court magistrate judge conducted a hearing on Father’s petition, established Father’s paternity of Child and approved a permanent parenting plan. The parenting plan named Mother as the primary residential parent and granted her 275 days of parenting time. The plan granted Father 90 days of parenting time and ordered him to pay $369 in monthly child support. The parties were granted joint decision-making authority. The court reserved the issue of retroactive child support.

After a hearing regarding child support, the magistrate judge set Father’s monthly child support obligation at $156.00 per month and retroactive child support obligation at $2,964.00. Father was ordered to pay $50 per month towards the arrearage. The magistrate judge also adjusted Mother’s parenting time to 230 days and Father’s parenting time to 135 days. Mother subsequently moved for a hearing before a juvenile court judge on the issues of parenting time, child support, and drug testing.

During the hearing Mother maintained that Father had not lived with Child and her after Child’s birth. She claimed that Father went back and forth between her home and his former wife’s home. Mother also stated that Father did not provide any support for Child from his birth until at least July 2012.

Father represented himself at the hearing. After Mother closed her proof, Father initially declined to offer any proof. Counsel for Mother then called Father to testify. Father admitted that he had previously used marijuana and had tested positive two times for drug use during the pendency of the paternity petition. He also admitted he had been convicted of a drug charge but claimed he had not used drugs since December 2012. Contrary to Mother’s testimony, Father claimed that he lived with Mother from the time of Child’s birth until summer 2012, but he conceded some back and forth between Mother’s home and his former wife’s home.

On January 2, 2014, the juvenile court judge entered an order, incorporating a new permanent parenting plan. The court made findings of fact regarding only the parties’ incomes, child credits, child care expenses, and Father’s child support payments to Mother. The court set Father’s child support at $331 per month retroactive to Child’s birth and awarded Mother a judgment for Father’s arrearage in the amount of $10,369.09. Father was required to pay an additional $50 per month towards the arrearage. The parenting plan named Mother as the primary residential parent, gave her all decision making authority for the child, and granted her 285 days of parenting time. Father was granted 80 days of parenting time. The permanent parenting plan also prohibited Father from “consuming any drugs, legal or illegal, 12 hours prior to exercising parenting time and while in the possession of the minor child.”

Father appealed to the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville raising two issues:

  1. Whether the juvenile court erred in its determination of parenting time and;
  2. Whether the juvenile court erred in its calculation of Father’s retroactive child support obligation.

As to the parenting time, the Appellate Court stated the following:

The evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s finding regarding the child’s best interest. We find no abuse of discretion in the award of 80 days of residential parenting time to Father. Even where both parties have offered proof, we are hesitant to second-guess a trial court’s decision on residential parenting. Here, Mother offered evidence demonstrating Father’s prior drug use, inadequate supervision or care for the child, and instances of inappropriate communications with Mother. Father offered almost no countervailing evidence. On this record, the trial court’s decision was certainly within the range of acceptable alternative dispositions.

And regarding the juvenile court’s calculation of Father’s retroactive child support, the Appellate Court stated the following:

The obligation to support a child exists from the child’s birth, and upon entry of an order establishing paternity, the father is liable for support back to that date. An award of retroactive child support is within the trial court’s discretion. However, the court’s discretion is “cabined by the statutory requirement that it must presumptively apply the Child Support Guidelines.”

The Guidelines contemplate an award of child support only when the child’s parents are not living together. The trial court determined that Father owed a child support obligation retroactive to Jake’s birth in January 2011. Therefore, the trial court implicitly found: (1) that Mother and Father have not lived together since that date, and (2) Father had not been providing support for the child since that date.

The evidence does not preponderate against either of those findings. Mother testified that she and Father were not living together when Jake was born in January 2011. After Child was born, Mother testified that Father went “back and forth between” her home and his former wife’s home.

The Appellate Court concluded that the juvenile court did not abuse its discretion in establishing the parenting schedule and child support, and accordingly affirmed the juvenile court’s ruling.

If your former spouse owes you retroactive child support or is disputing parenting time you should seek the services of an experienced family law attorney. Contact Donna Wagner to schedule a consultation.

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