Failure to Make Child Support Modification Retroactive Reversed in Clarksville, TN: Blackwell v. Blackwell

Facts: Mother and Father are the parents of two children. When they divorced, they agreed Mother would be the primary residential parent for their daughter while Father would be the primary residential parent for their son.

Eight months later, Mother petitioned to modify Father’s child support obligation because of a significant change in parenting time — their son had begun residing with Mother full-time.

At the trial one year later, the trial court found their son had only spent two weekends with Father since Mother filed her petition. The trial court modified the parenting plan to reflect reality and increased Father’s child support obligation.

Notably, the trial court refused to make Father’s new child support obligation retroactive to the date of Mother’s petition. The trial court justified its decision “because the testimony suggests the Father has spent additional funds on the children.” Specifically, the proof showed Father sometimes paid for the children’s school lunches and “other functions.”

Mother appealed.

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

Mother argued the trial court abused its discretion by denying her request to modify Father’s child support retroactive to the date she filed her petition. She also claimed the trial court did not make adequate factual findings to support the conclusion that a retroactive modification was inappropriate.

Both Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(f)(1) and the Child Support Guidelines permit the trial court to modify child support retroactively to the date the action for modification was filed. By doing so, it removes any incentive an obligor parent might otherwise have in delaying litigation and resolution in an attempt to keep his or her child support payment lower for as long as possible.

The Court of Appeals determined the trial court’s refusal to make the child support modification retroactive was an abuse of discretion:

[W]e conclude that the trial court erred by failing to modify Father’s child support obligation retroactive to the date of Mother’s filing the petition to modify. The parties’ son had been residing with Mother for approximately five months before she filed her petition. Furthermore, Father admitted at trial that he had exercised minimal co-parenting time. The trial court provided no adequate factual or legal basis for allowing Father to avoid the payment of his child support obligation, pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines, for eleven months.

The Court reversed the trial court and modified Father’s child support obligation retroactive to the date Mother filed her petition.

Blackwell v. Blackwell (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, June 29, 2016).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee 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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