Facts: Long after his divorce and after his children were emancipated, Father was found to owe a child support arrearage of over $32,000. Father filed a motion to terminate his child support arrearage on the basis of his disability, presenting proof from an expert that Father is not capable of any substantial gainful employment at present or in the future. The trial court terminated Father’s child support arrearage. The State appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The State argued the trial court erred in retroactively terminating Father’s child support arrearage.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(f)(1) provides that a child support judgment shall not be subject to modification as to any time period or any amounts due prior to the date that an action for modification is filed and notice of the action has been mailed to the last known address of the opposing parties. In other words, retroactive modifications of child support obligations — including arrearages — are not permitted; prospective modifications can be made, but only after notice. Further, equitable defenses cannot be used to eliminate child support arrearages.
Applying the statute, the Court wrote:
Our General Assembly established the public policy of Tennessee as to this issue when it enacted Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(f)(1). We are constrained to adhere to our Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statutory law adopted by our General Assembly. In this case, the Trial Court affirmed the Referee’s finding of a child support arrearage in 2005. No appeal was taken from that final judgment. [Father] filed his petition to terminate his child support obligation in February 2011, long after his child support arrearages had been established through order of the Trial Court. Therefore, the Trial Court was not permitted under Tennessee law to modify or eliminate [Father's] duly ordered child support arrearage obligations.
In sum, while [Father's] mental or physical ailments may preclude him from being found in contempt or effectively prevent collection of his child support arrearages, Tennessee law does not allow the outright retroactive termination of child support arrearages which have accrued as a result of valid court orders. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.