The Wisconsin courts take child support payments very seriously and demand that parents pay close attention to ensure that they are meeting their obligations. While many may think that child support is something that can be put on hold for a period of time while dealing with tough or unpredictable circumstances, the reality is that courts will allow parents very little leeway around their obligations to pay. This is illustrated in a recent decision before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
In Henson v. Henson, Mr. and Mrs. Henson became estranged in 2012. During a child support hearing that year, the Waushara County Child Support Agency petitioned the court to order Mr. Henson to pay child support to Mrs. Henson because the children were living with her at that time. After reviewing financial records and Mr. Henson’s income, Mr. Henson was ordered to pay $116 per week in child support.
In 2015, the child support agency moved to modify that child support order after Mr. Henson left his job and moved into self-employment. Based on the previous unemployment income he had received and his current self-employment, the agency made a recommendation that his child support be increased to $144 per month. Mr. Henson opposed this increase and argued that he had been diagnosed as diabetic and demoted at his old job after he was found unconscious. When he challenged the demotion, he was fired. He stated that although he was now self-employed, he had had difficulty in finding new work, and his unemployment benefits had run out. The court, however, followed the child support agency’s recommendation and raised Mr. Henson’s monthly child support obligations.
Mr. Henson did not appeal the decision but later moved to modify it, arguing that his illness continued to prevent him from working. The court found that Mr. Henson had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support this argument and maintained the existing child support amount. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Henson stopped paying his child support.
In December 2015, the courts began contempt proceedings against Mr. Henson, finding that he had not paid child support in well over a year and owed more than $2,000 in outstanding child support. Mr. Henson provided a letter from his doctor suggesting that his health condition made it difficult for him to work for long periods of time, but it did not discuss his overall inability to work. Mr. Henson also argued that approximately $3,300 had been taken from his taxes to pay for outstanding child support and that the remaining $2,000 that was still owed could be worked out without resorting to a contempt finding.
The court ultimately found him in contempt, noting that beyond the intercepted tax return, Mr. Henson had made no effort to voluntarily pay his child support obligations over the past year or more. It ordered him to spend 45 days in jail but suspended the jail time as long as Mr. Henson continued to make timely payments without interruption for the next 13 months. Mr. Henson appealed.
On appeal, Mr. Henson argued that the child support had been inaccurately calculated initially, and it was impossible for him to pay the amounts that had been ordered. The appeals court noted that Mr. Henson had never appealed the initial child support determinations, and, accordingly, it could not address those issues on this appeal of contempt. The appeals court further found that the lower court was justified in finding contempt, given Mr. Henson’s failure to make any sort of payment toward his outstanding child support amounts and the fact that he had not met his burden of proof to provide an explanation for his failure to pay. Accordingly, the appeals court upheld the contempt finding.
This decision is a good reminder that parents should be extremely careful not to fall behind on child support obligations, and if child support amounts become impossible due to changes in circumstances, they should raise these issues immediately.
At Reddin & Singer, LLP, our Milwaukee child support attorneys can assist you in recovering outstanding child support amounts, or help you get a child support order modified if it is proving to be overwhelming. To speak with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.