Facts: Mother and Father, the parents of three children, divorced in 2003. Father was ordered to pay $1400 per month for child support until the middle child turned 18.
In May 2011, in anticipation of the middle child turning 18 the following month, Father filed a petition to modify child support.
Discovery ensued. The final hearing did not take place until March 2014. In the meantime, Father unilaterally reduced his child support payment in February 2012 to $400 per month without the authority of a court order.
After the trial, the trial court modified Father’s child support obligation but elected not to make it retroactive to when the middle child turned 18. Instead, the trial court made the modification effective as of the date of its ruling in March 2014. As a result, a judgment for child support arrearages was entered against Father in the amount of $15,637.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(f)(1) provides in relevant part that no child support order may be modified retroactively “as to any time period or any amounts due prior to the date that an action for modification is filed and notice of the action has been mailed to the last known address of the opposing parties.”
It is well established that a trial court has the discretion to make a child support modification effective as of the date of the modification petition, the date of the final hearing, or any appropriate date in between. Here, the trial court made the modification effective as of the date of the final hearing, which was nearly three years after the middle child turned 18.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
[The legal principles explained above] do not apply, however, to reduction of child support due to a child’s reaching the age of majority and the concomitant expiration of the parental duty to support. First, except in statutorily defined situations not present here [e.g., when the child is disabled], a court has no authority to order child support beyond majority, or beyond the time established by statute. Consequently, an order of support for a particular child expires at the time the child reaches majority.
Second, our courts have also taken the position that a reduction in child support due to the emancipation of a child should not be considered a modification as that term is used in Tennessee Code Annotated 35-5-101(f)(1), but instead is simply the application of a rule of law derived from the legal principle that parents generally owe no duty of support to their adult children…. [P]roration of child support for an emancipated child is not a retroactive modification of the child support award and its application does not require a petition to, or an order from, the court….
[Father] argues persuasively that the Trial Court should have selected a less arbitrary date, namely that of the June 14, 2011 aging out of the child. Indeed, June 14, 2011 is the only date consistent with the case law cited above and the explicit expectations of the parties in their agreed parenting plan. In our judgment, the Trial Court erred in designating the date of the final hearing, March 31, 2014, as the effective modification date as such a date is contrary both to Tennessee law and the agreement of the parties. We reverse the Trial Court as to this issue, and remand for a new calculation of [Father’s] arrearages or credits, if any, taking into account what [Father] has paid through the hearing on remand.
Accordingly, the trial court’s ruling was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: Tennessee Code Annotated § 34-1-102(b) requires each parent to financially support their child “until the child graduates from high school or the class of which the child is a member when the child attains eighteen (18) years of age graduates, whichever occurs first.” After that date, there is no longer a legal obligation to provide financial support.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.