Posted by: koherston | August 19, 2013

Post-Majority Child Support Ruling Reversed in Columbia: Johnston v. Harwell

Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of two children, were divorced in Hawaii in 2003. The Hawaii divorce decree required Father’s child support obligation to “continue uninterrupted” for each child until they finished their post-high school education or until they turned 23 years old, “whichever occurs first.”

In 2006, the parties and the children relocated to Tennessee. The Hawaii divorce decree was enrolled in Tennessee and became an order of the Tennessee court. After the parties mediated a post-divorce dispute, a new parenting plan was entered in July 2006. It modified the amount of Father’s ongoing child support obligation but was silent as to the duration of the obligation.

In 2012, Father petitioned to terminate his child support obligation on the date each child reached 18 and graduated from high school.

After a hearing, the trial court granted Father’s relief, effectively modifying the duration of Father’s child support obligation to terminate it when the children turned 18 and graduated from high school, instead of requiring Father to pay child support for the children while they were in college up to age 23. After determining that Tennessee law applied (instead of Hawaii law), the trial court reasoned that, in Tennessee, a parent ordinarily has no legal obligation to support a child who has reached the age of majority and has graduated from high school.

Mother appealed.

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

Generally, an agreement that is merged into a court order becomes a disposition by the court; the agreement or stipulation loses its contractual nature, and its provisions may be enforced by a court order. The reason for stripping the agreement of the parties of its contractual nature is the continuing statutory power of the court to modify its terms when changed circumstances justify. When an obligor parent agrees to support his or her child beyond the age of 18, however, the agreement retains its contractual nature, even when it is incorporated into a child support order, because such support falls outside the scope of the legal duty of support during minority. Thus, agreements for post-majority support are enforceable contracts, and the payment of college tuition is a valid contractual subject for a husband and wife in the throes of a divorce. Such contractual obligations are binding upon the parties, and will be construed by courts by principles of interpretation as any other contract.

In reversing the trial court, the Court wrote:

The July 2009 order upon which the parties agreed had two prongs. First, the agreed Parenting Plan, which modified the amount of Father’s child support obligation but did not address the duration of his obligation. Second, the enrollment of the Hawaii divorce decree, which requires Father to provide support for his adult children until they finish post-high school education or turn 23 years old. Thus, the parties’ agreement to enroll the Hawaii decree, without addressing duration of child support in the Parenting Plan, left intact the duration provision in the Hawaii divorce decree, and made it part of the overall agreed order. Taken as a whole, the July 2009 agreed order plainly obliges Father to pay support for the parties’ children past majority….

[T]he enrolled Hawaii decree and the Parenting Plan dovetail together, to establish both the amount and duration of Father’s child support obligation, agreed upon by the parties in July 2009…. Whatever Father’s subjective intent may have been at the time the parties agreed to the issuance of the July 2009 order, nothing in the order, including the reference to the child support guidelines, indicates an intent to truncate the duration of Father’s child support obligation as set forth in the enrolled Hawaii decree.

In Tennessee, if an obligor parent agrees to support his or her children beyond the age of majority, the agreement may still be modified or even terminated if the obligor parent shows an unforeseen material change in circumstances that would justify relief from the obligation. Father does not, however, assert an unforeseen change in circumstances, or for that matter, any other reason for terminating his child support obligation. He argues only that the duration provision in the Hawaii decree “went away” by operation of law when it was enrolled in Tennessee, an argument which we have declined to adopt. Because Father stated no basis for modifying or terminating his child support obligation as set forth in the operative parenting order, we must conclude that the trial court erred in granting his motion.

Accordingly, the trial court was reversed and the case remanded.

Johnston v. Harwell (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, July 16, 2013).

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


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