United States: Look Under The Tree And There's A Family Law Case Involving Evidence

Not terribly exciting but evidence rulings are hard to find and ones where a family law ruling is reversed based on evidence used by the trial judge are especially rare.

Johnson v. Johnson 2016 Pa. Super. 294 is a published panel decision where the issue was whether Father needed to continue to support an adult child. The law in this area is made murky by the statute (adults "may be liable" for continuing support: 23 Pa.C.S. 4321(3)) but clarified by the case law holding that there must be a disability which prevents the adult child from engaging in profitable employment at a supporting wage by reason of mental or physical limitations. Hanson v. Hanson, 625 A.2d 1212 (Pa. S. 1993).

Father petitioned to suspend support. Mother defended on behalf of the child. The burden is on the child to prove that disability prevents employment and justifies continued support. Verna v. Verna, 432 A.2d 630 (Pa.Super. 1981). In holding that Father had a continuing obligation the trial court noted that it was not presented with current mental health testimony. While cautioning itself that the doctrine of judicial notice does not extend to records admitted in another case (Naffah v. City Deposit Bank, 13 A.2d 63 (Pa. 1940), the Trial court did note that 13 years earlier the court had found the child suffered from a schizotypal personality disorder. It then concluded the evidence currently showed that this disorder continues even though expert support for that conclusion was not in evidence.

Lacking expert testimony and faced with medical records which were not properly authenticated, the Trial Court denied admission of the records. But then, as noted, the trial court decided to indulge in a review of the 2002 evidence and ruling on the same subject. The court also secured its own copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and perused that in reaching its conclusion that the disability was continuing.

The Superior Court reversed. The trial court is confined to what was presented at the hearing; not what was contained in the court file even though that evidence may have been properly admitted in 2002. The Superior Court cited Eck v. Eck, 475 A.2d 825,827 (Pa. Super. 1984) for that proposition. The appellate opinion also mentions that even though it denied admission of the newer records of treatment based on failed authentication, it referenced these records in its opinion. This also was error and the case was remanded for further determination.

The case has a number of interesting issues. If the child had the burden and we assume the Mother was acting on her behalf, why is there a remand if the burden was not met? Should this not have been a vacate order instead of a remand? One suspects that mother may have gotten a "bye" here and that she is now on notice to either secure a current expert opinion or at least work on getting the current treatment records admitted when the trial court resumes jurisdiction.

The standard for continuing support is also ambiguous although the Superior Court notes that the remand nullified the need to address that substantive issue. The opinion references the standard of adult child support as whether the child is too "feeble physically or mentally to support itself." Com. ex rel. O'Malley v. O'Malley, 161 A. 883 (Pa. Super. 1932). It also quotes Hanson v. Hanson, 625 A.2d at 1214, where the standard is termed "impossibility of employment." The trial court said the standard was whether the child could be "profitably employed" and whether "such employment is available." Setting aside the insensitivity of the language used in O'Malley, that case talks broadly about self-support. Today, we see adults with physical and mental disabilities in more and more employed positions many of which are crafted to accommodate those limitations. They can earn some money but it may not be enough, even when supplemented by transfer payments. Is there still a support obligation if it is not "enough?". And how much is "enough?" The current self-support set aside found in the state support guidelines finds that an adult earning less than $931 per month net is presumed unable to contribute to child support. Pa.R.C.P. 1910.16-2(e)(1)(C). Effectively this means that any person earning minimum wage and working full time is not only self-supporting but able to contribute to support of his/her own child. It would stand to reason that such a person is therefore ineligible to seek support from a parent upon attainment of majority at 19. Is this a hard and fast rule? Would it make a difference if the parents had enormous income of their own? The law in this area has a mid-20th century tinge that could stand for some 21st century judicial clarification.

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