Imputed Income for Child Support Reversed in Nashville, Tennessee: In re Jonathan S.

September 12, 2022 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of one child. In their parenting plan modification dispute, Mother’s income for child support was an issue.

The proof showed that Mother had previously worked for Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers and was paid $43,000 a year. She left that job in La Vergne, Tennessee, when she remarried in 2019 and moved several hours away to Cleveland, Tennessee, to live with her husband. She is now a stay-at-home mother and wife and helps with work on the farm she lives on.

At the time of trial, Mother worked part-time in a temporary position with the U.S. Census Bureau, but that employment ended when the census was complete the same month their case was tried.

The trial court found Mother willfully underemployed and imputed her income at $3583 per month, which was what she made from her previous employer.

Mother appealed. She argued the trial court erred in calculating her gross income for child support.

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

The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines govern child support awards. The Guidelines provide that a parent’s gross income “shall include all income from any source.” Income may be imputed to, i.e., attributed to, a parent if the court decides the parent is willfully underemployed or unemployed.

In analyzing whether a parent is underemployed or unemployed, Tennessee courts consider the reasons for the parent’s occupational choices and assess the reasonableness of those choices, given the parent’s obligation to support their child. Determining willful underemployment or unemployment is not limited to choices motivated by an intent to avoid or reduce the child support obligation.

Suppose a court finds that a parent is willfully underemployed or unemployed. In that case, it may credit additional income to that parent to increase their gross income to an amount that reflects their income potential or earning capacity. This increased amount is used to calculate child support.

Tennessee courts consider the parent’s past and present employment, education and training, the local job market, and the prevailing wages in the local community, among other factors.

Any finding of a parent’s earning capacity must have an evidentiary basis. The parent looking to impute income to the other parent bears the burden of proving that the other parent is willfully underemployed.

The Court found there was no evidentiary basis in the record for the amount of income imputed to Mother:

According to the record, Mother has no limitations preventing her from maintaining employment, and she maintained consistent employment before marrying her husband. By Mother’s own testimony, she and her husband “have chosen for [her] not to work.” The State of Tennessee recognizes the role of a stay-at-home parent as an important and valuable factor in a child’s life. However, Mother is not the child’s primary residential parent and does not act as the child’s full-time caretaker. Furthermore, because she maintained consistent employment prior to marrying her husband, it appears that Mother’s choice to leave the workforce is related more to her being a stay-at-home wife than a stay-at-home mother. As such, Mother’s decision not to work does not constitute a valid reason to avoid her obligation to provide support for the child. Having affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that Mother is underemployed, we turned to review whether the record supports the trial court imputing [$43,000] as Mother’s gross income for child support purposes.

The evidence showed that, at the time of trial, Mother worked part-time, earning $18 per hour, but such employment would end in the coming weeks. Given that Mother’s employment would end shortly after the trial concluded, it was not necessarily error for the trial court to consider Mother’s employment and earnings history when imputing income to her. However, it was error for the trial court to impute income based on Mother’s previous earnings from Ritchie Brothers without making additional relevant findings to support imputation of that amount. While the record shows that Mother earned $43,000 during her employment with Ritchie Brothers in 2018, the record is silent as to whether Mother could turn a similar wage in her current city. Ritchie Brothers is located in La Vergne, Tennessee—a community that is over two hours away from Mother’s current residence in Cleveland, Tennessee. Under the Guidelines, the trial court should have considered Mother’s residence, job skills, the local job market in Cleveland, the availability of employers willing to hire Mother, and the prevailing earnings level in Cleveland when determining the amount of income to impute. The trial court made no findings, and, on this Court’s review, no evidence was presented, concerning these factors. In short, there was no evidence presented to show that Mother could earn a wage, while living in Cleveland, similar to what she earned at Ritchie Brothers, when she lived in La Vergne.

Finding that the amount of income attributed to Mother was not supported by the record, the Court reversed the trial court’s judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for reconsideration.

In re Jonathan S. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, August 26, 2022).

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Imputed Income for Child Support Reversed in Nashville, Tennessee: In re Jonathan S. was last modified: September 12th, 2022 by K.O. Herston

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