Artrip v. Noe, 2009-SC-000260-DGE
Issue: Application of Social Security Disability Benefits received by Children due to Custodial Parent’s Disability in Child Support Determination
Published: Affirming (With Concurrence in Result Only)
Mom, non-custodian, appealed from CA decision vacating FC’s order reducing her child support obligation based on the children’s receipt of Social Security Disability payments received due to disability of Dad, custodial parent, claiming CA erred in its interpretation of child support statute and its failure acknowledge and reconcile provisions of that statute.
Mom paid Dad, primary residential parent, $564 monthly child support for parties’ 2 minor children. Mom later filed a motion to reduce child support due to the children's receipt of approximately $800 .00 per month in Social Security benefits resulting from Dad’s disability. After hearing, FC granted Mom’s motion, holding that, pursuant to KRS 403.211(3)(d), the children's SS income was an independent financial resource, and that child support guidelines should be adjusted. Dad appealed. CA held that only Dad, the disabled parent, was entitled to claim credit for the children's SS disability benefits and remanded to FC for recalculation.
SC held that KRS 403.211 (15) states that a payment of money received by a child as a result of a parental disability shall be credited against the child support obligation of the parent but shall not be counted as income to either parent when calculating a child support obligation. CA stated that a child support credit based upon SS disability benefits "may only be taken by the disabled parent from whom the payments stern," because "these social security benefits in essence step into the shoes of the income lost by the father as a result of his disability." Mom argued to SC that CA failed to consider the statute’s clear language referring to "the parent" and "either parent" as opposed to "the disabled parent."
SC disagreed. “It defies both common sense and the plain wording of the statute to hold that the non-disabled parent is entitled to a credit for his or her child support obligation due to the Social Security disability payments of the disabled parent. Such an interpretation would clearly reach an absurd result. KRS 403.211(15) indicates that disability payments received by the child are to be credited to "the child support obligation" of "the parent." Clearly, the legislature intended that "the parent" receiving the credit is to be the non-custodial disabled parent with the child support obligation.” Furthermore, SC recognized that the SS disability benefits received on behalf of the parties' minor children are merely a substitute for the wages Dad would have received, but for his disability, and from which his support payments would otherwise have been made.
SC also disagreed with Mom’s argument that CA should have made a finding that FC’s decision was an abuse of discretion and should have given direction to FC as to how Dad's SS benefits were to be considered in the calculation of Mom's child support obligation. “While Social Security benefits of the type at issue here are arguably a financial resource of a recipient, we do not believe that such benefits are the type of ‘independent financial resource’ that would allow a trial court to deviate from the basic child support guidelines. Indeed, allowing the trial court to consider the Social Security benefits of the disabled parent when calculating the child support obligation of the non-disabled parent would, in effect, nullify the mandate of KRS 403.211(15). As stated earlier, KRS 403.211(15) does not allow the non-disabled parent to receive a child support credit for the Social Security disability payments of the disabled parent. If the trial court instead were to consider these payments as ‘independent financial resources’ of the child, a back door would be created whereby the court essentially gives the non-disabled parent credit for such payments... It would be illogical to think that the legislature would exempt the parent's disability benefits from being calculated for income purposes under KRS 403.211(15), and yet allow those same benefits to be considered for deviation from the child support guidelines.
NOBLE, J., CONCURRING IN RESULT ONLY:
“Where I do not agree with the majority is its reasoning that children's Social Security benefits cannot be considered to be independent income as the basis for a trial court to deviate from the support guidelines. Clearly it can be, if the statute is properly applied. The rule the majority adopts avoids the plain language of the statutes, and can lead to an improper result in the next case. … KRS 403.211(3) … does not define what an independent resource is, but for purposes of calculating child support based on the parents' income pursuant to KRS 403.212, ‘income’ includes Social Security benefits. Presumably, such benefits can thus be included in children's independent income. When a trial court determines that the independent income makes the child support guidelines amount unjust, it can deviate. … It is the total amount of support (table amount) from which the court can deviate, not the individual support obligation of one parent. … In this manner, the court can make an equitable reduction that relieves both parents of some amount of table support which is offset by the children's independent income to some degree. … Unfortunately, what the trial judge stated on the record was that he was reducing the mother's support obligation by one-third of the children's Social Security benefits. The majority is correct that he cannot do this, and that there is no statutory basis to do so. This does not mean, however, that in an appropriate case those benefits could not be considered by the trial court to deviate from the total support amount from the table. Had the trial court made written findings on the record as to why the independent income of the children made the total monthly support obligation from the table unjust or inappropriate, he would have been well within his discretion pursuant to KRS 403.211(3). Consequently, due to the specific facts of this case, I agree with the result reached by the majority, but cannot agree with its legal reasoning, which I believe sets bad precedent.”