Many people focus on the “before” aspect of child support: how to seek it, how the courts will determine the amount, or perhaps how to avoid having too large of an obligation. But it is important also to consider what happens after that obligation is in place. Here the focus is usually on enforcement, meaning how to force someone to pay an obligation with which they are not complying.Real life is complicated, however, and so sometimes less-common situations can arise. A case from the 2013 term of the Texas Supreme Court is a good illustration of this, and shows how difficult it can be to end a child support obligation once it is has begun. The case, Office of the Att’y. Gen. of Tex. v. Scholer, involved a divorced couple with one child. When the couple divorced, the father agreed to pay $450 monthly in child support. Later, the two agreed verbally to reduce that to $300 monthly. Some time after this agreement was made, the relationship between the couple became more difficult, and the mother stopped allowing the father to see their child at all.After some negotiation, the father agreed that he would relinquish all rights to the child if the mother would agree to give up her right to child support. The mother accepted, and had her attorney draw up the necessary paperwork. The father signed everything and returned the documents to the mother’s lawyer sometime in 2000. Unfortunately, the papers were never submitted to the court.
The father believed that everything was settled, and stopped making child support payments. The mother never sought to collect them. However, nine years later, the Office of Attorney General sought back child support payments from the father on the mother’s behalf. In sum, the trial court ordered the father to pay $77,875 plus interest, as well as $522.83 per month going forward. The Texas Court of Civil Appeals reversed, finding that it was unfair for the mother to get child support, since it was her promises (and those of her attorney) to the father that made him believe he no longer owed support.
The Texas Supreme Court disagreed, and reinstated the $77,875 judgment against the father. It had two reasons for doing so. The first is that the Texas Family Code lays out very specific guidelines as to what defenses someone who owes child support may use, and that the fairness rule used by the Court of Civil Appeals was not one of them.
The other was older and went further. The Court pointed out that child support is not generally considered a debt, but is instead a duty to the child. So while the fairness rule would not allow the mother to benefit from not keeping up her promise to the father, the money is for the benefit of the child. This meant that the mother’s unfair actions (intentional or otherwise) could not be held against the child by withholding child support. This is a common theme in Texas law; for example, the Family Code states that a court cannot condition child support on one parent allowing access to the child.
This all goes to show just how difficult it can be to terminate a child support order once it has been entered. It is of course possible to change it depending on the circumstances. But this case underlines just how important it is to have capable representation from the start, since it may be difficult or impossible to change things later.