Retroactive Child Support Denied in Tennessee When Parties Living Together: Estes v. Estes

Facts: The parties divorced. Mother was named the primary residential parent. Father was ordered to pay child support. About a year after the divorce, the parties resumed living together with their children. During this time, Father stopped paying his court-ordered child support and deposited all of his income into a joint bank account to which Mother had full access. Several years later, the parties separated again. Father resumed paying child support. Mother filed a petition to recover past-due child support for the period of cohabitation. The trial court ruled that Mother was entitled to $24,000 in retroactive child support. The trial court refused to order retroactive support for an additional child born during the period of cohabitation. Surprisingly, Mother appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court in part and affirmed in part.

Father argued that he satisfied his child support obligations throughout the period of time when the parties cohabited with their children by depositing all his paychecks into the parties’ joint account. The proof showed that Mother had full access to this joint account and could have written herself a check for the court-ordered child support amount each month. There was no evidence presented that Mother’s access to this account was restricted in any way or that the balance in the account was ever insufficient to cover the child support monthly amounts. After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:

The evidence submitted at trial shows that most of the children’s expenses were paid out of the parties’ joint account. . . . There was no evidence that Father limited Mother’s access to the joint account or ever asked Mother not to use the money he earned for anything she chose to buy, either for herself or for the children. While Mother deposited her earnings in the joint account for some period of time, she later opened her own separate account, but still had access to Father’s earnings in the joint account.

Based on the facts of this case, we conclude Father satisfied his obligation to pay . . . child support throughout the parties’ period of reconciliation . . . . As a result, we reverse the trial court’s judgment to the extent the court awarded Mother an arrearage for child support in the amount of $24,000.

Important to our decision are the facts that the parties and their children lived together as a family and paid expenses from a joint account. Mother agreed to and participated in this arrangement, and it would be inequitable to award Mother past child support under these circumstances.

Mother also sought retroactive support for a child born to the parties during this period of cohabitation. Mother relied upon Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-311(a)(11)(A), which provides that once parentage is established and the father of a child is identified, child support shall be awarded retroactively to the date of the child’s birth. The Court rejected Mother’s argument, reasoning as follows:

The goal of the statutes and regulations governing child support is to assure that children receive support reasonably consistent with their parent or parents’ financial resources.

There is no question in this case that the parties’ youngest child received support consistent with his parents’ resources. The statute and child support guidelines addressing retroactive child support apply in situations where the father has not provided support for the child, which is not this case.

It’s safe to assume Mother regrets her decision to appeal the trial court’s ruling. This case brings to mind the old adage, “Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.”

Estes v. Estes (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, April 16, 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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