Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of one child.
Father retired at age 65.
Mother worked as a mechanical engineer. Her job required her to commute from Kingsport to Knoxville every day. She accepted a voluntary reduction-in-force offer from her employer at age 46 and became a stay-at-home parent. There was no evidence that Mother attempted to find comparable work in the Kingsport area.
Father argued that Mother was voluntarily unemployed for child-support purposes because it was unreasonable for her to retire at age 46.
Mother argued that her employment decision was reasonable and that her occupational choices have benefited the child.
The trial court rejected Father’s argument, reasoning that because Father retired at age 65, Mother should also be allowed to retire at age 46.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
The fairness of a child-support award depends on an accurate determination of both parents’ gross income.
Under the Child Support Guidelines, imputing income to a parent is only appropriate after the court determines the parent is willfully or voluntarily unemployed or underemployed.
The Child Support Guidelines do not presume that any parent is willfully or voluntarily underemployed or unemployed.
If a parent’s reasons for working in a lower-paying job are reasonable and in good faith, Tennessee courts will not find him or her to be willfully or voluntarily underemployed.
The Court of Appeals found no fault in the trial court’s reasoning:
The record before us does not preponderate against the juvenile court’s determination that Mother’s decision to accept the voluntary RIF offer was motivated by no reason other than to spend more time with the Child and to be a better mother. The State of Tennessee recognizes the role of a stay-at-home parent as an important and valuable factor in a child’s life. Mother is clearly not avoiding employment in an effort to evade an obligation to support the Child. Additionally, the lengthy drive from Kingsport to Knoxville did result in Mother spending an excessive amount of time in the car each day prior to her decision to accept the voluntary RIF offer, thus limiting the amount of time she could spend with the Child.
Thus, the trial court’s decision declining to find that Mother is voluntarily unemployed was affirmed.
K.O.’s Comment: It does not sit well with me that an able-bodied engineer can retire at age 46 without having income imputed to her for child-support purposes. If she were an alimony obligor, what are the chances her voluntary retirement at age 46 would lead to the reduction or elimination of her alimony obligation? Zero.
Tennessee law is clear that parents must provide financial support for their children to the extent they are able, and they may not avoid their financial responsibility by failing to exercise their earning capacity. That sure seems like what happened here.