United States: Can There Be Too Much Child Support?

We live in a day when reported (i.e. precedential) decisions are rare and decisions touching upon important philosophical differences are like hen's teeth. But on November 18 the planets aligned to give us Hanrahan v. Bakker, a 2-1 panel decision with Judges Ford Elliott and Dubow in the majority and Jenkins in dissent. The subject; how much child support is "enough" when the combined incomes exceed $15,000,000.

We have seen this before. Branch v. Jackson involved a major league baseball player. In that case there was a large support order and money deposited in an UTMA account for an unspecified "later." This writer was troubled by support paid into trust because that really does transfigure the basic premise of the income shares approach to child support. But the result could be explained when one sees that the average career span of a baseball player in the majors is about 5.5 years. Statistics tell us that the rainy day is coming and that for professional athletes there is rarely a "second act." Meanwhile we know that childhood is 18 years by law.

Hanrahan is different. Both parties are lawyers sharing physical custody of two children. Mother earned approximately $105-180,000. Father's earnings as a specialist in corporate takeovers with an established Wilmington law firm ran a gamut from 1,083,000 in 2010, $4,010,000 in 2009; $2,303,000 in 2011 and $15,592,000 in 2012.

The parties divorced in 2009 after 17 years of marriage. The opinion references but does not describe income or lifestyle during the marriage. The property settlement agreement called for an annual exchange of tax returns and an annual adjustment of support based on net income and Pennsylvania guidelines. It also contained a counsel fee provision should there be a breach of the agreement.

All proceeded smoothly in 2009 which is to say the calculation was done and the support adjusted to $15,878 per month. In 2010 father's income declined sharply but again they followed the guideline formula and support fell to $3700 a month. In 2011 Father's income was $2,303,000 and the support was calculated as $7,851 per month.

2012 was the year the mold broke. With $15,600,000 in income and mother's reported as $105,000 Father wrote to Mother stating that he ran the calculation but that the number was "way beyond" any realistic reasonable needs. He also generously proposed not to reduce the support below $7,851 per month. It should be noted that Father also covered about $6,000 a month in tuitions, camp, and activities in addition to the support specified by calculation.

To complicate matters Father also took $2,500,000 of the 2012 earnings and clapped it into an irrevocable trust for the children. As if that doesn't make it complex enough, the partners of his firm agreed to fund a scholarship in honor of the law firm's founding partner. The "contribution" to this cause for Father was $150,000 but the firm reimbursed him for the contribution.

As one might expect, $14,000 a month in support and direct payments did not seem adequate to Mother and she filed to enforce the agreement. Father filed an unspecified counterclaim and the matter was heard in January, 2015. Over Father's objection that the income level made the guideline presumptive amount under Pa. R.C.P. 1910.16-3.1 absurdly unrealistic, the Delaware County Common Pleas Court came back with an order ranging from $52-59,000 per month from May 2013 through April 2014. But the Court simultaneously ordered Mother to deposit $30,000 per month from that sum into Uniform Transfer to Minor Act accounts for the children where she would act as custodian. It also found that Father had breached the agreement and made an award of attorneys' fees pursuant to the agreement. Both parties appealed.

Mother's appeal settled on the issue of putting the support money into an UTMA account. Her argument was that every other support order in Pennsylvania affords a recipient unfettered access to the support awarded. On this subject the majority agreed, noting that children should not be made to wait for child support and that UTMA is a gifting mechanism with a trust aspect in contrast to child support which is an obligation of parenthood. The UTMA statute declares that these "gifts" are not a substitution for child support. 20 Pa.C.S. 5314(c). The UTMA funds are secondary to the underlying duty to support from current resources. Sternlicht v. Sternlicht 822 A.2d 732,737 (Pa.Super, 2003) aff'd 876 A.2d 904 (Pa. 2005). That aspect of the order was reversed.

The trial court had made a downward deviation in the support amount by reason of the $2,500,000 Father had deposited into trust for the children. Mother asserted that this also was an unwarranted intrusion into the support formula. The trial court had reviewed the deviation factors under Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-3.1(a)(3) and concluded that the trust was a "relevant factor" warranting deviation. Here the Superior Court again relied upon cases noting that the support obligation was not reduced because of the child's own property. This contribution was made voluntarily at a time when Father knew he had a child support obligation. See Portugal v. Portugal, 798 A.2d 246 (Pa. Super, 2002)(a parent's voluntary retirement contributions are still income available for support). The downward deviation was reversed.

On the counsel fee award, the trial court had found this to be a reasonable dispute and not a breach of the agreement. The Superior Court disagreed finding that Father covenanted to pay according to the guidelines and that his position that the guidelines were now absurd or confiscatory was without legal basis. This denial of fees was also reversed.

Father's appeal starts with a claim that the 1994 decision in Ball v. Minnick, 648 A.2d 1192 (Pa. 1992) somehow eliminated reasonable needs as a standard for support. The Superior Court held that guidelines and the rebuttable presumption of their applicability had been part of a statutory scheme approved by Act 66 in 1985 and remained the law. The income shares model had been adopted in 1989. Ball v. Minnick had established that where the guidelines stopped (then at $10,000 combined net income) the formula of Melzer v. Witsberger, 480 A.2d A.2d 991 (Pa. 1984) would prevail. But Ball was overruled in 2010 by adoption of Pa. R.C.P. 1910-3.1 which stated that all support cases were to be first analyzed through an income shares model after which the courts could evaluate whether deviation was appropriate. Father placed his reliance upon use of the terms "reasonable needs" in the statutory framework of 23 Pa.C.S. 4322. But the Superior Court responded that the guideline formula adopted in the Rules was the formula adopted for determining reasonable needs. It further noted that reasonable needs were not a deviation factor specified in the existing rules.

Along the same lines Father asserted the deviation was appropriate because this support result was an aberration of the standard of living of the parties. Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-5(b)(7). He also borrowed from the trial court's reliance on "other factors" to deviate. 1910.16-5(b)(9). The trial court appears to have followed the rainy day reasoning of Branch v. Jackson. Essentially, the argument there was that funds needed to be set aside for a day when incomes were likely to be reduced. The amended trial court order referenced the children's' post majority needs. The analysis here seems somewhat muddled but the clear import is that post majority needs and standards of living are not part of a child support analysis.

What makes this case interesting is not so much the result but the trend. We are seeing lots of disparity in annual earnings on the part of more and more people. In this case, even Mother's income varied markedly. The support amount (excluding the add ons) over three years varied from $3,700 to $59,000 a month. Assuming a caring, honest and intelligent recipient what is that person to do. We can hope the payee would not spend every dollar received, but we are trusting that the right thing will be done with some fairly astronomical levels of child support. If the payee took the excess over the mean level of support (roughly $8300 a month) and purchased a $500,000 home with the excess cash accumulated over the 12 months of "surplus" whose house is it when the children are emancipated.

When large sums like that in Hanrahan come into play, would it not make sense for the court to appoint a guardian ad litem to at least make some suggestions or perhaps ask some questions. Certainly this should not be an appointment to wrest control of the support from the payee but we have all heard the stories, whether apocryphal or not of fortunes wasted on cashmere socks and fast cars. As a business lawyer Mr. Hanrahan probably still has a few more seasons in the big leagues of mergers and acquisitions. But wide receiver Michael Jackson was drafted in 1991 and finished in 1998. We don't know how Ms. Branch's children by Mr. Jackson ended up but even the best of us certainly would be tempted to think that the father of her children might become the next Jerry Rice (20 seasons). If the money we call child support really is for the kids, some caution should be taken in circumstances where the income level is erratic and the source fleeting. A GAL would be money well spent to assure that children do not ride the road from rags to riches back to rags when that calamity could be avoided.

The dissenting opinion of Judge Jenkins would go even farther. She believed that a downward justification was warranted based upon the funding of the trust and she also approved of the notion that it was in the best interests of the children for funds to be segregated into a UTMA account.

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