Case Watch: For Mediators
The following case analyses are part of a regular series we publish to help neutrals broaden their knowledge of rulings of Georgia’s appellate courts that may affect your practice. Remember: mediators should not give legal advice or opinions.
Review of S10F1417, Holloway v. Holloway, decided November 1, 2010, appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court of a ruling by Judge John Lee Parrott, Jasper County Superior Court.
Nothing has caused more confusion since its introduction a few years ago than the child support worksheets. Especially vexing are the deviations that the parties usually request to lower the amount of their support obligation. If the parties have children, for us mediators there is no escape from preparing the child support worksheets.
Holloway v. Holloway emphasizes the importance of the proper drafting and accurate language required by the child support worksheet. It also highlights the inexplicable emotions that are so much a part of domestic mediations and that can result in unforeseen consequences.
We all know the basic issues that may create deviations. For a complete list of discretionary deviations, see the Georgia Child Support Commission (www.georgiacourts.gov/csc). Companion Guide to Child Support Worksheet and Schedules 2010.
Holloway illustrates a split parenting plan in which separate child support worksheets should be prepared. (Remember: “shared parenting” is equal time with both parents; “split parenting” is different children with different parents).
Let’s look at the relevant portions of the agreement the Holloways entered into between themselves:
Father had younger daughter and Mother had older daughter.
Their child support worksheets indicated Mother owed Father $1,568 per month and Father owed Mother $550 per month. Procedurally this was correct.
The Holloways agreed Mother would pay Father $1,000 a month (they deducted Father’s obligation from Mother’s and rounded the number to $1,000). Although Father paid the medical insurance, the parties agreed this would not be a set off on his child support worksheet.
Mother had an attorney review their agreement, it was signed off on, and it was incorporated into their Final Divorce Decree. Case over? Unfortunately not.
The Mother (for unknown reasons) changed her mind. (For most of us, this happens as soon as we leave the room to caucus with the opposing party.) Mother appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and the basis of her suit was – you guessed it – the $18 that the parties left out when they rounded off the amount of the monthly child support.
The Supreme Court took issue with the fact that this was a $18 deviation from the worksheets, and that the deviation was without legal justification. We all know the amount didn’t matter. It was the principle of the law: “The trial court must explain the reason for the deviation, provide the amount that would have been required if no deviation had been applied and state how application of the presumptive amount would be unjust or inappropriate and how the best interest of the child for whom support is being determined will be served by the deviation,” the Court said.
The justices further noted: “In addition, the Order must include a finding that states how the court’s or jury’s application of the child support guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate considering the relative ability of each parent to provide support.”
The fact that the Mother consented to the agreement did not change the law. The child support worksheets were made MANDATORY and parties cannot override this purpose: “Because the parties’ separation agreement did not comply with the law and did not contain findings of facts as required to support a deviation, the Court shall reject such agreement,” the Court decided.
We all know use of Schedule E may have prevented this. However, child support qorksheets have been around for a few years now. Judges know it is well-settled law that the trial court’s failure to include the requisite written findings of fact constitute “reversible error.” These are two words judges never want to hear. Therefore some judges who will allow deviations and some will not. Those that don’t allow deviations are trying to avoid the risk of being reversed, particularly since they don’t have to allow deviations.
While most parties will consistently request less and less in child support, any deviation must be authorized by law and approved by the Court regardless of the agreement of the parties.
While you may be sympathetic to the parties’ financial pleas, you may not be able to accommodate their requests – even to the amount of $18.