To Modify Child Support in Tennessee, Court Must Follow Legal Process

Tennessee child support modification process in Tennessee family law from the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Lana Walton Luster vs. Kenneth Walton – Process to Modify Child Support in Tennessee Law

In 1994, the Parties were divorced, using a “Marital Dissolution Agreement” that was incorporated into the decree of divorce.  The Father, Kenneth Walton, agreed to pay the Mother, Lana Walton Luster, the sum of $624.54/month for child support.

Beginning in 1996, a string of petitions was filed by the Parties, who primarily represented themselves, but, upon occasion, were represented by Counsel.  Court appearances were made until 1999.

Then, from 2006-2008, the Parties again filed various petitions against each other.  Chief among the allegations was the question of whether the Father’s child support obligation had been reduced to $411/month, either by a court order that was inadvertently not memorialized in writing, or by agreement of the Parties that should have been reduced to a written court order, or by virtue of the Father paying and the Mother accepting this amount for a period of time between 1997 and 2006.

The trial court took proof, including that neither Party (nor, apparently, any attorney) could locate a written agreement or court order modifying the 1994 Marital Dissolution Agreement child support terms.  The trial court decided that the Parties had made a private agreement to modify the ordered child support and set the Father’s child support obligation at $411/month effective as of the date of the filing of his 1997 petition.

Critical to the trial court’s finding were two pieces of evidence.  First, the Mother’s prior attorney, Charles McGhee, testified to a letter written on behalf of the Mother expressing her consent to the child support modification.  Second, a subsequently filed court petition of the Mother acknowledged that the Father was paying $411/month child support.

So while it appears that the trial court record included even the calling of attorney witnesses and the admission of proof, the trial court was criticized by the Court of Appeals for failing to do its job in setting forth a proper, written decision.  The Court of Appeal again set forth its two-step process for review of child support modification applications.  First, a strict computation of child support must be made on both parties’ current incomes using the “Child Support Worksheet.”  Then, the trial court must determine whether this new computation would be a “significant variance” of at least fifteen percent (15%) between the current calculation and the prior court order.  Only at this point may a trial court institute an upward or a downward variance from the current, strict computation of child support, if one is found to be in the best interests of the child.

The checklist of statutes for the approach of the Court of Appeals is #1 – Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-101(e)(1)(A), the strict computation as a rebuttable presumption.  #2 – Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-101(g), the significant variance.  #3 – Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-101(e)(1)(A), requiring the court to articulate from among specific reasons for any variance.

Because it failed to set forth the mandatory two-step analysis for a child support modification case, the Parties to this appeal were remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Lana Walton Luster vs. Kenneth Walton, No. W2008-02167-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. 2009).

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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