In the case of Wunder vs. Wunder, No. M2014-00008-COA-R3-CV, (Tenn. Ct. App., Dec 22, 2014) Husband and Wife were declared divorced in May of 1999. The partes’ Marital Dissolution Agreement or “MDA” gave primary custody of the two minor children to Wife and obligated Husband to pay $4,000 in monthly child support. Husband also agreed to fund a college trust account of $800.00 per month, per child. A provision in the MDA titled “Reduction of Child Support” stated that court approval must be obtained before a reduction in child support could be made.
In November of that same year, Husband filed a Motion to Modify the final decree, seeking a reduction of his child support and of the college trust fund payments on the grounds that his income had decreased substantially. In January of 2000, the Trial Court reduced Husband’s support payments to $3,194.00 per month and his college fund payments to $485.00 per month for both children. However, the court clarified that this reduction was temporary and should be followed only until further orders from the court were given.
The eldest of the two children graduated from high school in 2012. After graduation, Husband decreased his child support payments to $2000.00 per month. In January of 2013, Wife filed a motion for civil contempt due to Husbands reduced payments. She asserted that she was owed no less than $17,637.42 in back child support. In November, the Trial Court found that Husband was not in contempt due to Tennessee state law, which states that parents are not obligated to pay child support once a child reaches the age of 18 and graduates high school.
Wife filed a notice of appeal in December. Though the state law does not require the Husband to pay child support payments to his non-minor children, this fact does not release him from the court ordered MDA that was filed with their divorce. As stated, this order did not allow for a reduction in child support payments without a prior court order.
In cases where the oldest child reaches the age of 18 and graduates high school, the child support payments may need to be recalculated. This is especially true when one sum is paid for both of the children. Tennessee also allows for parents to obligate themselves to continue assuming financial responsibility for their children past the age of majority by agreement or court order.
In this case, the MDA required the Husband to resume payments as ordered until otherwise ordered by the court. Therefore, Husband was not free to reduce payments without an order from the court even though his eldest child had aged out.
As a result of these findings, the Court of Appeals reversed the Trial Court’s decision that the Husband was not in contempt for reducing his child support payments unilaterally stated that upon remand, he would owe those unpaid amounts to the Wife.