Facts: Mother received child support enforcement services from the State of Tennessee. The State, acting on mother’s behalf, filed a petition to establish paternity against Father. Hearing no response from Father, the trial court entered an order by default finding Father to be the biological father of Mother’s child. The order also established Father’s child support obligation, which led to a wage assignment against Father’s paycheck. Shortly thereafter, Father, who was not represented by counsel, filed a motion for DNA testing. The motion stated Father had been an active duty member of the military deployed in Baghdad, Iraq when all of the earlier proceedings had taken place. Father also alleged he had never received the petition to establish paternity. A subsequent DNA test revealed that Father was not the biological father of the minor child. The trial court then ordered the State to “reimburse” Father for the $2735 he had paid in child support pursuant to the default judgment because even though “the State was aware that [Father] was in the military,” it neglected to comply with the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The State appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
The State argued the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because, although it has broad powers in cases involving children, it lacks the specific authority to award “reimbursement” for child support. Specifically, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(a)(7) provides that “the State shall not be liable in any case to compensate any person for repayment of child support as a result of the rescission of any orders of legitimation, paternity or support.”
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act was enacted to protect “those who have been obliged to drop their own affairs to take up the burdens of the nation” from exposure to personal liability without an opportunity to appear and defend in person or through counsel. It provides protection to servicemembers against default judgment. Specifically, United States Code vol. 50, § 521(g)(1) provides as follows:
If a default judgment is entered in an action covered by this section against a servicemember during the servicemember’s period of military service (or within 60 days after termination of or release from such military service), the court entering the judgment shall, upon application by or on behalf of the servicemember, reopen the judgment for the purpose of allowing the servicemember to defend the action if it appears that—
(A) the servicemember was materially affected by reason of that military service in making a defense to the action; and
(B) the servicemember has a meritorious or legal defense to the action or some part of it.
The Court held that the trial court erred because a judgment entered in violation of the Service members Civil Relief Act is only voidable – not void – and does not violate due process. Accordingly, the trial court’s reasoning that the money garnished from Father was based on a void judgment and, therefore, should be reimbursed to him, was in error.
After reviewing some related precedent, the Court critiqued the trial court’s ruling on another basis, to wit:
[T]here is simply no statutory authority to support the [trial court’s] order that the State refund the moneys garnished from [Father] while the child support order was still valid and in force. . . .
[W]e hold the [trial court] did not have subject matter jurisdiction to order the State to reimburse [Father] the child support that was garnished prior to the vacation of the default judgment and order of child support.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.