FAMILY LAW: WHEAT V. COMMONWEALTH (COA 2/16/2007)

WHEAT V. COMMONWEALTH
FAMILY LAW:  Child support (not the biological father, fraud)

2005-CA-002389
PUBLISHED: REVERSING AND REMANDING (HOWARD)
DATE RENDERED: 2/16/2007

John Wheat appeals from a Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order of the Barren Circuit Court, Family Court Division, holding him in contempt of court for failing to pay a child support arrearage. The court imposed a sentence of 180 days in jail, to be suspended on the condition that Wheat begin paying the arrearage. Wheat argues that DNA testing proved that he is not the biological father of the child in question, and that as such the family court erred in ordering him to pay any child support. Pursuant to Denzik v. Denzik, 197 S.W.3d 108 (Ky.2006), issued after the trial court made its ruling, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the matter to the Barren Family Court.

If a man is not the biological father of a child and cannot be held on equitable grounds to be the legal father, then there is a strong argument, based on simple fairness, that he should not be required to pay child support.

There is, however, another issue in this case, legal rather than equitable, which must be considered. The trial court in its order did not evaluate this matter from an equitable standpoint at all, but instead indicated a belief that it was bound by a line of cases (citations omitted) which held that past child support obligations, once accrued, may not be modified.

"We perceive that no distinction can be made between a judgment based upon a claim for alimony or maintenance and a judgment based upon any other legal right. After the judgment is entered, although it may be subject to modification at a subsequent date, it is binding and final until modified; and any payments which may have become due previous to such modification constitute a fixed and liquidated debt in favor of the judgment creditor against the judgment debtor." Whitby, 208 S.W.2d at 69; Stewart, 627 S.W.2d at 588.

Thus, if there is no exception to this rule, Wheat has no recourse, regardless of the equities of the matter.

However, after the trial court issued its order in this case, the Kentucky Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Denzik v. Denzik, held that a father could recover back from his former wife child support payments previously made to her because the support obligation arose from her fraudulent and years-long claim that he was the child’s biological father.

Although the COA noted the facts in Denzik differ somewhat from those at bar-the plaintiff in Denzik did not file a motion to recover past child support payments in his divorce case, but rather in a separate civil suit for fraud-the COA believed Denzik supports Wheat’s contention that past child support payments are voidable in some circumstances.

Denzik did not overrule Clay and the line of cases relied on by the trial court. Neither did it carve out an exception to the rule set out in these cases for every situation where a subsequent paternity test proves that the man paying the child support is not the biological father. However, Denzik did recognize an exception to that rule in the event of fraud or misrepresentation. The Kentucky Supreme Court in Denzik stated:

"This ruling does not in any way conflict with our precedents on erroneous amounts paid in child support, because error is not fraud. 

Cases involving excess child support payments made by judicial error have determined that recoupment or restitution of the excess payments is inappropriate unless there exists an accumulation of benefits not consumed for support. See, e.g., Clay v. Clay, 707 S.W.2d 352 (Ky.App.1986)…. However, in the case of fraud and misrepresentation of expenses to the spouse, the court has ordered restitution…. In this case, it was determined that somebody other than the father of the child was paying child support thereby giving this case a different character than the others.

In short, the facts of this case can only be repeated with fraud, not with a floodgate of paternity tests."

Denzik, 197 S.W .3d at 112,113.

Thus, since Denzik, if the mother was guilty of fraud or misrepresentation, even child support obligations that have already accrued may be modified. The Commonwealth appears to recognize this and asserts in its brief that, “[t]here is simply no evidence of the unmarried woman deliberately concealing material facts in this case.” This is accurate only in the limited sense that the trial court did not hear any testimony. The parties advised the court that the facts were not in dispute. However, neither the court nor the parties were aware at that time of Denzik, which opinion had not yet been issued by the Supreme Court. The results of the DNA test, by themselves, offer some indication that the mother did not tell the whole truth. Wheat’s affidavit, cited above, further supports this proposition. Additionally, in the Commonwealth’s own response to Wheat’s 60.02 motion, it conceded, that "The Mother, Christy Pruitt, has some fault in this matter in that she apparently did not disclose the name of the true biological father when she supplied the name of John Wheat as the purported father of Shane Pruitt back in 1985."

The trial court did not hear evidence on this issue because it believed that it did not have any authority to set aside past child support obligations, under Clay, and the prior line of cases.

The Supreme Court in Denzik has now established that a trial court does have such authority, on a finding of fraud or misrepresentation, even when the case involves past obligations. We therefore remand this matter for an evidentiary hearing and findings of fact on this issue, whether or not the mother was guilty of fraud or misrepresentation.

See, Divorce Law Journal:  Denzik: The Floodgates Are Opening; Who’s Your Daddy? Is Denzik Relevant To The Debate?

Digested by Michelle Eisenmenger Mapes 

 

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