Which Version of Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines Are Used to Determine Retroactive Child Support?: Maher v. Woodruff

Facts: Mother and Father divorced in 1998. At the time of the divorce, they shared custody of their two children. Father was ordered to pay $1500 per month in child support.

Less than a year later, after Mother’s chronic mental illness prevented her for caring for the children, the court transferred custody of the children to Father and terminated his child-support obligation. The Court order further provided, “[Mother] has a duty to pay child support, but the amount of that support is reserved.”

Thereafter, Mother provided no financial support for the children.

Over 16 years later, Mother filed a petition for contempt relating to a dispute over the division of Father’s retirement benefits. Father counterclaimed for back child support for the period during which he had sole custody of the children, specifically August 1999 through May 2004.

There was no dispute about whether Mother owes child support. The only question was what amount she owed.

Using the Child Support Guidelines that were in effect during the years in which Mother’s obligation was incurred, i.e., from August 1999 through May 2004, the trial court awarded Father retroactive child support in the amount of $36,246.

Mother appealed.

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

In Tennessee, a parent’s child-support obligation is governed by the Child Support Guidelines established by the Tennessee Department of Human Services pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-5-101(e).

The Guidelines in effect from August 1999 through May 2004 provided that child support was based on the income of the noncustodial parent, which was Mother. Also, the Guidelines in effect at that time would consider the alimony Mother received from Father as income for purposes of calculating her child-support obligation, and that alimony was Mother’s primary source of income during the relevant period.

The current Guidelines, which were promulgated in 2005, are based on an “income shares” model that would also take Father’s income into account when establishing Mother’s child-support obligation. Moreover, the current Guidelines would not include alimony that Mother received from Father for purposes of determining her income.

For these reasons, Mother’s child-support obligation will likely be lower if calculated using the current Child Support Guidelines rather than those that were in effect prior to 2005.

Husband argued that the Guidelines in effect at the time Mother’s child-support obligation was incurred should be applied to determine the amount of retroactive child support due.

Mother argued the Guidelines in effect at the time Father filed his counterclaim for back child support should apply.

The Court held that the current Child Support Guidelines must be used to determine a child-support obligation that accrued prior to their creation:

In this case, the Child Support Guidelines directly address the issue at hand:

The Child Support Guidelines established by this Chapter shall be applicable in every judicial or administrative action to establish, modify, or enforce child support, whether temporary or permanent, whether the action is filed before or after the effective date of these rules, where a hearing which results in an order establishing, modifying, or enforcing support is held after the effective date of these rules.

Furthermore, the Child Support Guidelines set forth the following instructions for calculating the amount of retroactive child support due: “For the monthly [basic child support obligation], apply the Guidelines in effect at the time of the order, using the Child Support Worksheet. . . .”

Considering the foregoing, we conclude that the trial court should have calculated [Mother’s] retroactive child support obligation using the Child Support Guidelines in effect at the time of the court’s 2016 ruling.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment was reversed with respect to the calculation of Mother’s child-support obligation and remanded with instructions to recalculate child support using the Child Support Guidelines in effect at the time of trial in 2016.

Maher v. Woodruff (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, April 13, 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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