Unilateral Modification Leads to Child-Support Arrearage in Memphis, Tennessee: State ex rel. Nichols v. Songstad

Facts: Mother and Father divorced in 2006. Father was ordered to pay child support.

tennessee child support modification

Five years later, the eldest of the parties’ two children emancipated after graduating high school. After the child’s emancipation, Father unilaterally reduced his child-support payments by 50% without requesting a modification from the court. Mother accepted Father’s reduced child-support payments for the next four years, when the parties’ youngest child emancipated.

Shortly thereafter, Mother petitioned for a judgment for Father’s child-support arrearage.

The trial court found that Father owed a child-support arrearage of $30,000.

Father appealed.

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

The process and criteria for ascertaining a parent’s child-support obligation is governed by Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines. These guidelines must be followed by Tennessee courts.

The guidelines require a “significant variance,” defined as a 15% change in the existing child-support obligation, to modify a child-support order. A significant variance is a condition precedent for a modification.

To modify a child-support order entered after January 18, 2005, the significant variance requirement applies even where the modification results from the emancipation of a child. The guidelines provide that a parent cannot modify child support before a petition for modification is filed and a notice is mailed to the other party.

Because Father sought no modification from the court, his unilateral reduction in his child-support obligation changed nothing:

Applying the unambiguous Child Support Guidelines applicable in this case, it is clear that Father was not entitled to unilaterally modify his child-support obligation upon the emancipation of his eldest child. Rather, the Child Support Guidelines applicable in this case provide that even where a reduction in child support is based upon the emancipation of a child, i.e., “a change in the number of children for whom a parent is legally responsible,” two requirements must be met: (1) the parent seeking the modification must file a petition and provide notice to the opposing parent; and (2) the party seeking the reduction must show that a significant variance exists to warrant modification. Here, Father never requested permission from the court to modify his child-support obligation. To the contrary, the only pleadings filed by Father were filed in response to Mother’s request for an arrearage judgment. Consequently, Father failed to file any petition or take any action for modification in court. Because Father never sought any relief from the court, no notice was given to Mother. Additionally, because no petition was filed, Father failed to establish that a significant variance existed to warrant modification of his child-support obligation. In fact, Father failed to present any evidence that his child support as calculated under [Tennessee’s Child Support Guidelines] would have been reduced in any fashion due to the change in number of children for whom Father was legally responsible. As a result, Father was not in compliance with the controlling [child-support] guidelines and acted without authority in prorating his child-support obligation upon emancipation of his oldest child.

The trial court’s judgment was affirmed.

K.O.’s Comment: Compare this case with Mitchell v. Hall, which holds that (1) a parent’s child-support obligation automatically ends when the child is emancipated, and (2) a reduction in child support due to the emancipation of a child is not considered a modification. The Mitchell opinion says, “[P]roration of child support for an emancipated child is not a retroactive modification of the child support award and its application does not require a petition to, or an order from, the court.” How does one square that with this case?

State ex rel. Nichols v. Songstad (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, May 17, 2018).

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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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