Tennessee Child Support Owed & Held Constitutional Even If Child Runs Away

Tennessee law case summary on constitutionality of child support in Tennessee divorce and family law from the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

In re Antar R.W. – Tennessee Child Support Laws Held Owed & Constitutional Even If Child Runs Away

This was an action for child support filed by the State of Tennessee against Dexter W., the father of fifteen year old Antar R. W.  Antar had been living with his adult half-brother, Justin Ratliff.  Mr. Ratliff had applied for child support enforcement against the father, and the petition sought both current and retroactive child support.

The father had previously been awarded custody of Antar after the boy’s mother fell into a coma.  According to the father, Antar had become rebellious and had run away numerous times.  Antar had run away most recently the year prior to the petition’s being filed, and had been living with the half-brother for several months.  The father claimed that the boy’s half-brother had been “harboring” the boy.  The father at the time also had four other minor children residing in his home.

In a typical child support enforcement action involving two parents, the income of each parent is taken into consideration in calculating the amount of child support.  In this case, however, the trial court assigned an income of zero to Mr. Ratliff, because he wasn’t a parent, and had no obligation to provide support.

The father appealed.  Since the child had by then reached the age of eighteen, the Court of Appeals first remanded the case to resolve the amount of retroactive child support.  The trial court entered a final order requiring the father to pay $25 per month toward a total retroactive obligation of $7,117, which represented eleven months of child support at $647 per month.  The Court of Appeals then considered the father’s arguments that the child support order was unconstitutional.

The father first argued that his equal protection rights were violated, because Mr. Ratliff’s income was not taken into consideration.  In a more typical case of one parent seeking child support from the other parent, then the income of both parties is considered.  But in this case, only one party’s income was considered.  The father argued that this violated equal protection, because his case was treated differently in this way.

The Court of Appeals held that this argument should not prevail.  In so doing, it first had to determine which standard of scrutiny to use.  Some cases, which involve fundamental rights or affect a suspect class, call for “strict scrutiny”.  The court held that strict scrutiny did not apply.  First of all, there is nothing suspect about either of the two groups being treated differently: parents, and non-parent caretakers.  Also, no fundamental right was affected: The court was not considering whether or not the father would have a relationship with his children.  The only decision was whether he had to pay support.

The Court of Appeals next held that “heightened scrutiny” would not apply, since there was no “quasi-suspect class” involved.  Therefore, the court applied the “rational basis” test.  The court quickly dealt with the argument, since the legislature has the power to determine “what is ‘different’ and what is ‘the same.’” In this case, the legislature concluded that parents and non-parent caretakers are simply very different classes, and the court refused to interfere with this reasonable and rational determination: Since a non-parent has no obligation to provide support in the first place, it is reasonable to ignore their income in determining how much support the parent is required to pay.

The father also argued that the court-ordered child support was unconstitutional because it disproportionately favored Antar, at the expense of his four other children.  Even though the argument was somewhat unclear, the Court of Appeals treated it as an Equal Protection challenge.

The Court of Appeals quickly rejected this challenge, since the Child Support Guidelines took the additional children into account, and the father had received credit for his support obligation to those other children.  The Court of Appeals also noted that a previous Tennessee Supreme Court case had rejected an almost identical challenge.

In re Antar R.W., No. W2011-01244-COA-R3-JV (Tenn. Ct. App., July 27, 2012).

See original opinion for exact language.  Legal citations omitted.

Memphis divorce attorney, Miles Mason, Sr., JD, CPA, practices family law exclusively with the Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC. To learn more about Tennessee child support laws and guidelines, read and view:

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