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Contempt in Child Support: Dern if I Do, Dern if I Don't!

The story of a Houston, Texas man recently sentenced to 180 days in jail after overpaying his child support has caught the attention of many in social media and I have been asked to weigh in. A while back, Mr. Clifford Hall was ordered to pay an increase in child support which was to be deducted from his paycheck. The State of Texas was to notify his employer of the increase, but never notified the employer of the new Order and therefore, the new amount. As a result, Mr. Hall's child support payments did not reflect the new court ordered amount. This caused him to slowly fall into arrears. In December of 2013, Mr Hall appeared before a Texas judge, was held in contempt and ordered spend 180 days in jail.

The injustice of this case is three-fold. One, Mr. Hall only fell behind because the State who prosecuted him failed to ever notify his employer of the increased child support. Two, once Mr. Hall discovered the oversight, before the Judge issued the ruling, Mr. Hall had paid all arrears, and even paid more money than he owed. And three, Mr. Hall had spent additional time with his son without seeking any reduction in his child support based upon the additional parenting time.

In one news report, a legal analyst opined that "... you have a deadbeat father that's trying to blame the system for his own failures...When you can't keep track of what you owe for your child, there is something wrong about the parental relationship there, and you almost deserve what you get." "Almost deserve..." I beg to differ. You don't deserve that kind of treatment at all.

Attending to the purpose of child support provides perspective in understanding this story and yields insight into the detrimental precedent this case may set, not only for Texas family law, but to any state looking to Texas as secondary authority to craft reasoning and arguments. Child Support's purpose is to require a non-custodial parent to provide support for his child. Simple enough. Mr. Hall is a father Ordered to pay child support. An oversight by the State of Texas, caused him fall into arrears. Mr. Hall's six month incarceration will deprive him of any income. He will not be able to pay anything towards his child support, will likely lose his current job, and upon release from jail already be further in arrears and digging himself out of a far worse financial hole before he can again provide for his son. Not only will Mr Hall not provide financially for his son while incarcerated, he won't be able to provide the physical support to which his son has grown accustomed. Rather than enforcing and encouraging child support, this Texas ruling stops child support in its tracks. The Order creates the circumstance complained of: non-payment of child support. How does that further the best interest of Mr. Hall's son?

Here, you have a father who spent considerably more time with his son than was Ordered by the Court and gave more than was financially required, without seeking any credit or deviation or modification of his child support obligations (which Georgia courts would allow).

To me, as a Georgia lawyer, the Court's ruling in this case is bizzare and poses the question of how one can protect themselves from situations like Mr. Hall's.

  1. First, communication is golden. If you are under a child support order, do not depend on third parties to correctly collect and distribute your obligation. Make sure you follow up with your employer and the custodial parent to ensure the correct amount of child support has been received. Phone calls are not enough. Sending written confirmation memorializing your conversations are essential for proving that your conduct was not wilful contempt.
  2. Next, keep all court orders stashed away for safe keeping. Being able to provide your orders to your attorney allows us to be efficient and expeditious in preparing your next course of action.
  3. Last, remember that child support and visitation are treated separately in Georgia. One does not hinge upon the other. Therefore, if you are are in arrears for child support, that does not mean that you are not allowed to exercise visitation with your child.

Always consult an attorney when you are having trouble complying with a court's order.  Time is of the essence and may be the difference between your incarceration and your freedom.

Cherese Clark

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