Trial Court Reversed for Failing to Use Child Support Worksheet: Devore v. Devore

Facts: In a post-divorce petition, Husband sought to modify his child support obligation to reflect the emancipation of the parties’ oldest child. Wife counter-petitioned for contempt, alleging that Husband had failed to pay various expenses required by their marital dissolution agreement (“MDA”). After a hearing, the trial court held that the unpaid expenses Husband owed pursuant to the MDA was offset in its entirety by the overpayment in child support after the oldest child was emancipated. Husband complained the trial court had failed to enter the specific amount of child support used in its calculations. The trial court responded by finding that “application of the guidelines would be inappropriate, not in the best interest of the children, and not achieve finality.” Husband appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Husband argued the trial court erred in finding that his overpayment in child support equaled the amount owed on Husband’s MDA obligations, specifically faulting the trial court for failing to use a child support worksheet when calculating the amount of child support owed for both children. Wife responded that the trial court properly found that the child support guidelines were not applicable because, by the time of hearing, both of the parties’ children had reached the age of majority and that any deviation was beneficial to Husband.

In Tennessee, child support is governed by Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101, which provides that “[i]n making the court’s determination concerning the amount of support of any minor child or children of the parties, the court shall apply, as a rebuttable presumption, the child support guidelines . . . .” The Guidelines specifically provide as follows:

The use of the Worksheets promulgated by the Department is mandatory in order to ensure uniformity in the calculation of child support awards pursuant to the rules. . . .

The completed Worksheets must be maintained as part of the official record either by filing them as exhibits in the tribunal’s file or as attachments to the order.

In setting the amount of support owed, the trial court may choose to deviate from the Guidelines. If the trial court chooses to deviate, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(e)(1)(A) requires that it “shall make a written finding that the application of the child support guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate in that particular case, in order to provide for the best interest of the child or children, or the equity between the parties.” Additionally, the court must “state the amount of support that would have been ordered under the child support guidelines and a justification for the variance from the guidelines.”

After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:

We agree that once Son reached the age of majority and graduated from high school, Husband was entitled to request a modification of his child support obligation to reflect payments for one child instead of two. . . . However, we believe the trial court should have considered the child support guidelines and utilized the child support worksheet in setting the amount of child support owed for Daughter once Son reached the age of majority and graduated from high school. When Husband petitioned for modification, the income of the parents had likely changed, and Husband had not exercised his visitation with Daughter, leaving Wife to care for Daughter the entirety of the year. These are circumstances that might have justified holding Husband responsible for a greater portion of the original amount once Son reached the age of majority. . . . We acknowledge the court’s reference to the guidelines in the order denying Husband’s motion to reconsider but hold that the court’s glancing reference to the guidelines was not adequate because it did not state the amount of support that would have been ordered pursuant to the guidelines. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the trial court and remand the case with instruction to the trial court to utilize a child support worksheet. If the trial court deviates from the guidelines, the reason for the deviation must be adequately explained on the record.

Devore v. Devore (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, January 4, 2012).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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