An interesting case (Woodward v. Woodward) was decided last summer by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee. It illustrates some important points about child support agreements and modifications. We’re all familiar with the concept of child support, but what happens when a child has disabilities that will last throughout adulthood and prevent independent living?
Joan N. Woodward filed for divorce from her husband Dr. Daniel C. Woodward in 2013. The couple have a daughter, Bailey, who has a disability requiring full-time care. Bailey was also past the age of minority – legally an adult – at the time of the divorce. During the process of their split, the Woodwards mediated various issues, including those concerning Bailey’s care.
The court signed the final order of divorce in 2014, with both parties agreeing that Joan would stay home to care for Bailey. The court awarded alimony, but did not enter any order for child support. In 2015, Daniel returned to court to request a reduction in alimony payments, claiming a change in financial circumstances. In response, Joan requested an order for permanent child support for Bailey.
And the court ruling is…
Daniel showed the court his earnings were significantly lower than they were when alimony was originally set in the divorce agreement. The court agreed that this was a change in circumstances and lowered his alimony payments to $3,000 per month.
Meanwhile, Joan stated the expenses related to taking care of Bailey were significant and expensive. She requested that the court order permanent child support from Daniel to help with these costs. However, here’s where the twist occurred: Joan’s application for child support was a post-judgment request – a modification. There was no child support order already in place. The court cannot modify an order when there was no order to begin with.
In their decision, the court cited several parts of Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-101(k)(1). For example, the court “may continue child support beyond a child’s minority for the benefit of a child who is handicapped or disabled . . . until such child reaches  years of age.” The statute also addresses children who are “severely disabled and living under the care and supervision of a parent.” If the court agrees these conditions apply, child support obligations also continue regardless of age limitations.
The key word here is “continue,” because there was no child support order to continue.
Joan appealed, but the Court of Appeals this past July agreed with the original ruling. As there was no child support order in place at the time of the divorce, the court had no jurisdiction to continue an order that did not exist.
Child support orders and modifications in Tennessee can be complex. Ensure you work with experienced Nashville family law attorneys like the ones at Miller Upshaw Family Law, PLLC. Please call 615.454.9899 or use our contact form to reserve a consultation.