Child support cases, especially when you are facing contempt and possible jail time, are serious matters. There are many ways the courts can find you capable of making your child support payments, but there are other resources the law does not require you to deplete just to meet your support obligation. In one recent case from the Florida Panhandle, a father won a reversal of his contempt finding and jail sentence because, according to the First District Court of Appeal’s ruling, everything the trial court used to find that the man had willfully declined to pay his child support was either too small, had no evidence to support it, or was an asset the father was not legally obligated to liquidate just to pay his child support. The appeals court’s ruling is a useful reminder of the several ways that a parent who owes support can defend himself in a contempt case.
In this case, the father J.N., was locked in a child support battle with the Florida Department of Revenue, who had filed a legal action on behalf of B.B., the mother of J.N.’s child. In a May 2009 court order, a judge had ordered J.N. to pay B.B. $620 a month in child support. The Revenue Department asked the court to find J.N. in contempt and throw him in jail.
J.N. was a self-employed repairman of four-wheeler vehicles. He made roughly $850 per month from his repair business. He owned very little, including a $5,000 trailer (but not the land upon which it was sitting) and a 13-year-old SUV worth $3,000. His total monthly expenses exceeded $1,900 per month. He testified at his hearing that he did not pay his child support because he did not have the money to do so.
Despite J.N.’s evidence, the trial court concluded that J.N. was willfully non-compliant with the child support order and was in contempt of court. J.N. received a sentence of 180 days in jail.
The father appealed, and he won. To issue the punishment this court did, the law requires the judge to “include findings that the obligor willfully failed to comply with a prior court order for support while having the ability to make the established payments.” The problem with the lower court’s ruling, which required the appeals court to order a reversal, related to the way the trial court analyzed each of the financial sources that J.N. allegedly had at his disposal and could have used to make his child support payments.
The first source that the trial court noted was J.N.’s business income. The problem with that source was that the income was too small. J.N. had a $620 per month child support obligation, which represented roughly three-quarters of his $850-per-month business income. The law doesn’t require you to expend all of your employment income just to pay your child support and avoid contempt. The appeals court in Nation’s case pointed to three different cases from the 1990s in which the courts reversed as improper support awards that ranged from 58% to 76% of the payor’s income.
Next, the court pointed to J.N.’s truck, his trailer, and the land where his trailer sat. However, the only evidence regarding the land in this case (which was J.N.’s testimony) stated that the land did not belong to him. There was no evidence indicating that it did belong to J.N. The law did not require J.N. to sell his trailer or his truck, since the courts have consistently held that the law does “not necessarily require the liquidation of capital assets to satisfy support obligations.”
The court also pointed to an annuity that J.N. owned. The annuity paid J.N. $125,000 in early 2012 and was scheduled to pay him another $225,000 in February 2017. The trial court found that J.N. should have had money left over from the 2012 payment. In the absence of hard evidence that J.N. did have money left over, a finding about what he “should have” done with a past source of income is only speculation and cannot form the basis for a valid finding.
The South Florida child support attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. have handled many child support and contempt cases over the years and have extensive experience in helping deserving parents avoid jail time and improper contempt rulings. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.
More blog posts:
Calculating Child Support in Florida When a Parent Has Been Recently Fired or Laid Off, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 27, 2016
Court Sends North Florida Father’s Parenting Plan, Child Support Case Back for Recalculation of Parents’ Incomes, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 10, 2015