Third-Party Caregiver’s Impact on Child Support Examined in Memphis, TN: State ex rel. Williams v. Woods

Facts: This case involves the never-married parents of Child. The trial court had to determine Father’s retroactive child support obligation/arrearage after Child had graduated from high school and became an adult. The time period at issue was Child’s four years in high school.

Mother has multiple sclerosis. Although she continued to work as a dispatcher, she often needs assistance with certain daily living skills.

Partly based upon Mother’s health issues, when Child started high school he began residing with Mother’s stepfather (Step-Grandfather) during the school week. On weekends and during summer vacation, Child returned to Mother’s home.

The trial court found Mother was entitled to child support throughout Child’s high-school years when Child resided with Step-Grandfather during the school week because Child was still under the care and control of Mother. During Child’s high-school years, the child support worksheet reflects 285 days of parenting time for Mother and 80 days for Father.

Father appealed.

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

Father argued that Step-Grandfather should have been considered the caregiver providing primary care and supervision of Child and, therefore, the primary residential parent for purposes of child support throughout Child’s high school years.

The Child Support Guidelines state that the child support worksheet should reflect the number of days each child spends with each parent and/or nonparent caretaker. The Guidelines define “caretaker” to mean any designated nonparent who provides the primary care and supervision for the child. The Guidelines further explain how if custody or guardianship of a child is awarded to a nonparent, then each parent is responsible for paying his or her share of the child support obligation to the nonparent caretaker.

The Court found Mother to be the primary residential parent during Child’s high-school years:

[N]o court order was ever entered at naming a primary residential parent prior to Child’s emancipation[; thus,] such a designation now is relevant only to an award of retroactive child support. The law is well-settled in Tennessee that because the obligation to support a child follows the child, a nonparent custodian has standing to petition for child support.

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Inasmuch as Step-Grandfather has not petitioned for retroactive child support or been added as a party to this action, the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to award child support to Step-Grandfather and properly did not consider such a ruling.

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[N]either party has provided authority for the proposition that a nonparent who has never been granted custody of a child and is not seeking custody or support is in a position to be named the primary residential parent. Considering the unique set of facts before us, we have found no authority that would allow for such a designation of Step-Grandfather, a nonparty to this case and a family member of Mother’s who testified that even when caring for Child, he considered the parents to be the overriding decision-makers and the emergency contacts for Child. . . .

If we were to adopt Father’s argument that Mother should not be considered the primary residential parent on days when she accepted assistance from a family member[/nonparent caretaker] . . . we would place the trial court in an untenable position of attempting to apportion various percentages of caretaking days throughout the year among one parent’s family members. We find this argument unavailing and not in keeping with the Child Support Guidelines.

Thus, the trial court’s finding that Mother was the parent with primary responsibility for Child during Child’s high school years and, therefore, that Mother was entitled to child support for that time period was affirmed.

State ex rel. Williams v. Woods (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, March 21, 2017).

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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