Child-Support Issues Raised in Williamson Co., TN: Sansom v. Sansom

Facts: Mother and Father are the divorced parents of Child. This appeal involved several postdivorce disputes, only two of which are noteworthy:

  • the dispute over what constitutes a “day” for child-support purposes, and
  • the trial court’s calculation of Father’s gross income for child-support purposes.

cat child supportRegarding the calculation of parenting time, Father argued the agreed parenting plan entered at the time of divorce was incorrect. It said he has 140 days of parenting time each year. Father argued that the correct amount is 208 days. The trial court disagreed.

Regarding Father’s income for child-support purposes, the proof showed that Father received a piece of real estate as a gift. The trial court determined Father’s gross monthly income to be $8477:

  • farm income: $3500;
  • dividend & interest: $742;
  • capital gains: $1183;
  • annual cash gift: $1166; and
  • gift of real estate: $1886.

Regarding the gift of real estate, Mother’s attorney explained that “the way I came up with $1886 a month is I took a 30-year mortgage on a $400,000 house at 3.25% and put that in his income figure.” The trial court included that amount in its calculation of Father’s gross income.

Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part.

Determining a “day” for child-support purposes. The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines define “day” as

when the child spends more than 12 consecutive hours in a 24-hour period under the care, control, or direct supervision of one parent or caretaker. The 24-hour period need not be the same as a 24-hour calendar day. Accordingly, a “day” of parenting time may encompass either an overnight period or a daytime period, or a combination thereof.

The Court held the trial court correctly calculated Father’s parenting time:

[W]e conclude that the trial court was correct in counting the period beginning Saturdays at 11:00 a.m. and ending Mondays at 6:00 p.m. as two days rather than three days. Our calculation of the days in this case is as follows:

  • Saturday 11:00 a.m. through Sunday 11:00 a.m. = Day 1
  • Sunday 11:00 a.m. through Monday 11:00 a.m. = Day 2
  • Monday 11:00 a.m. through Monday 6:00 p.m. = 7 hours (not a day)

Father also asserts that his weekly overnight visits . . . that began on Wednesdays at 11:00 AM and end on Thursdays at 5:00 PM should count as two days instead of one day as the trial court held. Again, we agree with the trial court and calculate that time period as follows:

  • Wednesday 11:00 a.m. through Thursday 11:00 a.m. — Day 1
  • Thursday 11:00 a.m. through Thursday 5:00 p.m. — 6 hours (not a day)

Gifts of real estate as income for child-support purposes. The Child Support Guidelines define a parent’s “gross income” to include all income from any source, whether earned or unearned, including, but not limited to,

  • wages,
  • commissions and tips,
  • bonuses,
  • interest income,
  • net capital gains,
  • and gifts that consist of cash or other liquid instruments, or which can be converted to cash.

The Court ruled the trial court erred by including the gift of real estate in Father’s gross income:

[T]he trial court conceded in its findings of fact and conclusions of law that “there is no precedent for whether or not a one-time gift of a home should be considered in the child support calculations under Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines as interpreted by our appellate courts.” Furthermore, other than the fact that the figures were proposed by Mother’s counsel, is not clear from the record how the trial court settled on a 30-year mortgage, or how it concluded that Father’s loan would be at an interest rate of 3.25%. The Child Support Guidelines allow a court the discretion to average a parent’s income over a period that is proper under the specific facts of a particular issue. However, in this case, we do not construe that principle to extend so far as imputing the value of Father’s home in Virginia into the calculation of his gross monthly income by fashioning a hypothetical mortgage at a speculative interest rate.

Thus, the trial court’s calculation of Father’s gross income to include the value of his home in Virginia was reversed.

K.O.’s Comment: (1) I have litigated the issue of what counts as a “day” for child-support purposes way more than should have been necessary. For whatever reason, this issue often confuses family-law attorneys and litigants. This is the first time I recall seeing the Court break down its calculation on an hour-by-hour basis. Perhaps they, too, are getting tired of explaining this.

(2) Father raised 10 distinct issues on appeal. The Court described it as a “‘throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks’ approach to this appeal, which was largely ineffective . . . .” Bryan Garner, author of The Winning Brief (3d. ed.), eschews this practice, instead recommending that lawyers raise no more than three or four key issues on appeal. If you don’t have a good argument, leave it out. You don’t want the Court to comment on one of your arguments the way they did on one of Father’s in this case: “Father makes absolutely no coherent argument on appeal as to how the trial court erred in awarding Mother attorney’s fees.” Ouch! Better to leave it out.

Sansom v. Sansom (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, May 10, 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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