Facts: During 1983, Mother was married to Husband, and at the same time had an intimate relationship with Father. In 1984, Mother gave birth to Child. Apparently, Husband was unaware of Mother’s relationship with Father. Husband signed Child’s birth certificate and raised Child as his son.
Later, Mother and Husband eventually divorced and entered into a marital dissolution agreement that designated Mother as Child’s primary residential parent. Husband was ordered to pay child support for the benefit of Child.
Within months after Child turned 18, he filed a parentage action to establish that Father is his biological father. Child’s parentage petition sought a retroactive award of child support dating back to his birth, as well as an award of attorney’s fees.
A court-ordered DNA test confirmed that Father is Child’s biological parent.
The trial court found that Mother was judicially estopped from making a statement that was contrary to the sworn pleadings she filed in her divorce action, in which she asserted that Child was the child of her marriage to Husband. The trial court commented that the actions of Mother deprived both Child and Father of the opportunity to have a relationship during Child’s childhood.
The trial court observed that Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-311 specifically references the child support statutes, including § 36-5-101, which provides for the payment of child support to the spouse or other person with custody of the child at issue. The trial court drew a negative inference from the fact that these statutes have no express provision for the payment of child support to an adult child, and on that basis concluded that there was no authority for the court to make such an award. Thus, the trial court concluded that Tennessee law did not expressly authorize it to make an award of retroactive child support to an adult child.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Child argued that, once paternity has been established, the pertinent provision of the paternity statutes, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-311(a)(11)(A), requires the trial court to make a determination of child support. He stressed that the purpose of the paternity statute is to require a biological father to support his child and that — as an adult child — he is entitled to that relief.
Father argued that Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(c)(2)(A), which states that the “order or decree of the court may provide that the payments for the support of such child . . . shall be paid either to the clerk of the court or directly to the spouse, or other person awarded the custody of the child. . . .” Father contended that Child does not have a personal right to child support, arguing that the right to receive child support payments vests in the custodial parent once due. Father also argued that Child is not legally entitled to receive child support because the costs associated with raising him were borne by Mother and Husband, not by Child.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-311(a) provides:
(1) A complaint to establish parentage of a child may be filed by:
(A) The child, if the child has reached the age of majority. . . .
The parentage statutes specify that an adult child must bring the parentage action within the statutory time deadlines. Once parentage is established by genetic testing, the statutes set forth certain actions to be taken by the trial court:
Upon establishing parentage, the court shall make an order declaring the father of the child. This order shall include . . . a determination of child support.
Section 36-2-311(a)(11) details the considerations for the trial court in making an award of retroactive child support and sets forth reasons for which the trial court may deviate from the child support guidelines. In addition, it directs the trial court to consider an award of attorney’s fees to either or both parties.
The Court reasoned:
[T]he object of the parentage statutes is not only to give the complainant the knowledge of the true parentage of the child at issue, but also to provide concrete relief that reflects the responsibility concomitant with being a biological parent. Section 36-2-311 sets forth that relief, using language that indicates that Tennessee’s legislature intended the relief to be mandatory once parentage is established….
When the legislature has enacted more than one statute relating to the same subject or sharing a common purpose, the statutes “shall be construed together (‘in pari materia’) in order to advance their common purpose or intent.” Thus, we must attempt to construe the general child support statutes, setting forth how and to whom child support is to be paid, along with the mandate in the parentage statutes that child support be included in the trial court’s parentage order, in a manner that advances the common purpose of both statutes…. In doing so, we decline to draw the negative inference drawn by the trial court below, and instead find that the lack of any provision in the child support statutes for payment of child support to an adult child does not nullify the child support mandate in the parentage statutes. In interpreting the parentage statutes, we are required to enforce the legislature’s clear mandate. When the legislature included in the parentage statutes a specific provision allowing an adult child to bring a parentage action, it gave no indication that the relief to be awarded to an adult child would be any different from the relief awarded to any other complainant. The legislature did not choose to carve out an exception in the parentage statutes for an adult child complainant, and we decline to read one into the statutes….
The parentage statutes state that the trial court may consider a deviation from the amount of the child support award as calculated under the child support guidelines based on the extent to which the father did not know, and could not have known, of the child; the mother’s intentional failure or refusal to notify the father of the child; and the mother’s attempts to notify the father of her pregnancy or the child….
Tennessee’s parentage statute requires the trial court to make any findings on deviation from the child support guidelines based on “the best interests of the child or the equity between the parties,” so the fact that the complainant is the adult child rather than the mother may significantly affect the trial court’s weighing of the equity between the parties.
Thus, the Court held that an adult child may recover retroactive child support pursuant to Tennessee’s parentage statutes. The trial court was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: Compare this case with Lichtenwalter v. Lichtenwalter, where the Tennessee Supreme Court said “[c]hild support payments are typically paid to the custodial parent despite the fact that child support payments are intended for the benefit of the child.” The Supreme Court noted the child support statute “does not change the party to whom the unpaid amount must be paid based upon the current age of the children for whom the amount were due.” The Supreme Court then held that the right of recovery for the arrearage “is a vested right that lies with the parent to whom the child support is due.” The Court of Appeals distinguished Lichtenwalter because it was not a paternity action. Reading the two cases together, it would appear that an adult child’s right to recover retroactive child support is limited to actions to establish paternity.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.