A magistrate judge modified a husband’s child support obligation, in part, due to the magistrate’s own opinions about the wife’s true income as a nail salon worker, in addition to relying on outside sources like an IRS tax guide. Because these were not proper bases for making a determination, the 4th District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s ruling favoring the husband.
When this Florida couple divorced, their marital settlement agreement that listed several events that would terminate the father’s child support obligation for the couple’s two children, including eighteenth birthdays and high-school graduations.
After the couple’s son turned 18 in 2008 and graduated from high school in 2009, the husband asked the trial court to modify his child support based upon the changes regarding the son’s status. As part of this hearing, the magistrate judge received evidence from both spouses regarding income. The wife, who worked in a nail salon, testified under oath about her income. The magistrate, using her knowledge from three decades of patronizing nail salons and overseeing family law cases in Palm Beach County, concluded that the wife’s testimony was not truthful. The magistrate, based upon these conclusions and her taking judicial notice of an IRS tax guide and another resource, imputed extra income to the wife and the trial court adopted the magistrate’s determinations.
On appeal, the 4th DCA reversed the ruling, deciding that the magistrate and trial court overstepped what should have been the bounds of the hearing. The husband’s motion centered only around the change in circumstances occurring as a result of the son’s turning 18 and graduating. The motion did not mention any change in the husband’s financial circumstances and did not ask the court to recalculate the wife’s financial condition.
Additionally, the appeals court ruled that the magistrate improperly brought outside information into the case. The law does not allow judges to substitute their own personal experience for sworn testimony or other evidence properly introduced by the two sides. By basing her conclusion about the proper amount of income attributable to the wife on her own personal experiences, either as a nail salon customer or as a magistrate in other cases, the magistrate judge committed this error.
The use of the tax guide to impute income to the wife was also flawed. The magistrate took notice of the guide on her own volition. In this situation, the law requires that each side receive “reasonable opportunity to challenge such information” before judicial notice is taken. Because neither the wife nor husband had that opportunity, judicial notice of the tax guide should not have occurred.
Rules pertaining to what information a judge or magistrate may or may not use in reaching her conclusion are important in all areas of law, but are especially so in family law. An improperly relied upon item (or wrongfully excluded evidence) may create a radical change in outcome regarding custody, visitation or child support. That’s why even seemingly simple cases, like modifying child support when a child graduates high school, are often not simple and require the aid of capable, determined legal counsel. For skillful advice and representation in your child support matter, contact the South Florida family law attorneys of Sandy T. Fox, P.A., who can provide you with the legal knowledge and advocacy you need .
Contact us online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.
More Blog Posts:
Government Stipend Prevents Parent from Collecting Support for Adopted Child, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 19, 2014
Couple’s Agreement Didn’t Contract Away Child’s Right to Receive Support, Survives Wife’s Challenge, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Jan. 14, 2014