Surprise! You Have a 17 Year Old Child You Never Knew. Now Pay Up!

Massachusetts laws provide formulas for the calculation of child support, but judges have considerable discretion to adjust their child support orders to fit individual circumstances. In one interesting case, a judge’s child support order required a father to pay seventeen years worth of back child support. See O’Meara v. Doherty, 53 Mass. App. Ct. 599 (2002). The mother waited until her daughter was seventeen to inform the father that it was his child— then asked for help to pay for the daughter’s education and health insurance. Genetic testing confirmed that the child belonged to father.

 The mother was awarded child support— but not as much as she had hoped. She appealed the award, claiming that the judge had failed to follow the child support guidelines. However, the Appeals Court upheld the award, saying that the judge did not ignore the child support guidelines, and the order was within the judge’s discretion.

Ongoing Child Support Payments

The mother used child support guidelines to calculate that she should receive $335.15 per week, but the court awarded only $180 per week. The mother claimed that the judge had disregarded the child support guidelines to reach this amount.

Where a judge disregards the child support guidelines, G.L. c. 209C, § 9(c) requires the judge to make specific findings. The mother argued that no such findings were made. The Appeals Court found that the judge had followed the § 9(c) guidelines, as well as the requirements of § 9(f), as amended by St. 1995, c. 38, § 168:

“In determining the amount to be paid, the court, in addition to applying the standards established by the chief justice for administration and management, shall determine whether the obligor is responsible for the maintenance or support of any other children of the obligor even if a court order for such maintenance or support does not exist. If the court determines that such responsibility does, in fact, exist and that such obligor is fulfilling such responsibility, such court shall take into consideration such responsibility in setting the amount to be paid under the current order for maintenance or support.”

In the intervening seventeen years, the father had married another woman, and they had a son. The father had a responsibility to support his son. The Appeals Court allowed that the judge “had considerable discretion to determine the amount she [the judge] would deduct from the guidelines amount to reflect the father’s responsibility to support his other child.” O’Meara, 53 Mass. App. Ct. at 604.

Retroactive Child Support Payments

In the retroactive child support determination, the father was ordered to pay $50 per month (the same rate at which the court ruled that it had accrued) up to the total amount owed of $10,200.

Massachusetts law provides for retroactive support, particularly in paternity cases where it may take time for the paternity of the child to be established. See id. at 605. Section 9(a) of c. 209C, as amended by St. 1995, c. 38, § 167, requires the court to consider “the parent’s ability to pay under subsection (c) and any support provided by the parent during such period.”

The judge and appeals court held that the mother’s seventeen year delay in informing the father that he was the father of her daughter, combined with the father’s present inability to make a lump sum payment of back child support, were justification for a reduced retroactive child support determination.

Children can be expensive! The attorneys at Hutchins Law P.C. have experience dealing with the complicated relationships and finances that surround child support. With Hutchins Law, you will receive legal representation and advice personalized for your individual situation. Call today for answers to your questions.

The purpose of this article is to inform our clients of developments in the law and to provide information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or to assume a client relationship. The content of this article could be considered advertising under the rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Copyright © 2012 Hutchins Law, P.C. All Rights Reserved.