A California Appellate Court has ruled that a Trial Court did not err in declining to order severe cut in child support payments where Father was a very high earner, Mothers major source of income was child support, and Mother had minimal timeshare. The Appellate Court further ruled that enabling Mother to maintain current housing and living standard was in Childs best interests. In the case of In re Marriage of Cryer, Mother and Father, both actors, were married in 2000. Mother gave birth to Fathers child in June of 2000. In April of 2004, shortly after Father completed his first season as costar of a major sitcom, Mother and Father separated. In December of 2004, Father helped Mother buy a condominium. Mothers last acting job was in 2005. In early 2006, Trial Court entered a stipulated divorce judgment that obligated Father to pay child support of $10,000 per month and gave Mother 65% timeshare with Child, while Father got 35%.
From December 2004, to May 2009, Child lived mostly with Mother. Meanwhile, both Father and Mother remarried. Mother and her new spouse had a child in January of 2007, but separated in March of 2009, and later divorced. In May of 2009, Father filed an ex parte application for sole custody of Child, claiming that Mother left Child unsupervised and not properly cared for. Trial Court denied Fathers application, but warned Mother not to leave her children unattended.
In late May of 2009, Mothers second child suffered an injury at Mothers home, causing Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services to file a dependency action, remove both children from Mothers care, place Child with Father, and place Mothers second child with her former Husband. Mother then filed a motion to have Father pay her attorneys fees in the dependency action, but Trial Court denied that motion.
On August 3, 2009, Father filed an Order to Show Cause asking for reduction of his child support obligation to zero, contending that Mothers reduced timeshare (she had only short monitored visits) and the Childs placement with him meant that his child support payments were supporting Mother and not the Child. In opposition, Mother pointed out that Fathers child support payments were only 3% of his income, and claimed that visitation orders in ongoing dependency action were only temporary. Without Fathers payments, Mother said, she would lose her house and car and be unable to pay her bills, all of which would harm Child. In his Income and Expense Declarations, Father reported an income of $327,000 per month, liquid assets of $7 million, and monthly expenses of $29,000, while Mother reported “negligible average income and liquid assets” and expenses of $10,000 per month. Mother stated that child support from Father was “her only significant source of income.”
On December 3, 2009, Trial Court issued a statement of decision which kept Fathers child support payments at $10,000 per month until January 2010, when they would decrease to $8,000 per month. Trial Court found that because Juvenile Court dependency action was in its early stages, Juvenile Court could modify Mothers custody and visitation arrangements at any time, and that it was in the Childs best interests to return to the same home he had shared with Mother prior to Juvenile Court action and to have regular contact with Mother. Trial Court also found that Father was extraordinarily high earner, making guideline award unjust and inappropriate. Trial Court ordered Father to pay $20,000 toward Mothers attorneys fees, told Mother “to pursue gainful employment,” and scheduled further hearing.
After Father was served with the statement of decision, he moved for reconsideration. Father followed that up with another Order to Show Cause, seeking an accounting of Mothers use of child support payments he had made since June 1, 2009, or alternatively, an order requiring those payments to be paid into a trust account. Father asserted that Mother was using those funds to pay her attorney in dependency action. After the February 2010 hearing on both filings, Trial Court made some technical changes to the statement of decision, but found no legal authority to order either an accounting or payments to a trust account, and denied those requests. Trial Court ordered Father to pay $5,000 to Mothers attorney.
Prior to the scheduled review hearing, Father filed a supplemental points and authorities, arguing that Mother had failed to look for gainful employment and was not awarded additional visitation or custody rights, and asking for stay of child support payments until she was. Father submitted an updated Income and Expense Declaration, showing an average income of $474,000 per month. In her responsive pleadings, Mother claimed that Father was under-reporting his income, that her visitation rights had been modified to allow home visits with Child, and that she needed child support to maintain her home. Mother reported zero monthly income and more than $13,000 in monthly expenses. At the review hearing on May 10, 2010, Trial Court found no changed circumstances since the November 2009 hearing, stated again that Childs best interests required Mother maintaining her current home, and denied Fathers request for downward modification. Trial Court ordered Father to pay $40,000 more toward Mothers attorneys fees.
Claiming that Trial Court erred in ruling on his initial and subsequent modification requests and by denying his request for accounting or payment of child support to a trust account, Father appealed. The California Court of Appeals has now affirmed Trial Courts decisions. With respect to Trial Courts initial modification order, the Appellate Court finds that Trial Court did not err by reducing child support to $8,000 per month because of potential for quick change in custody and visitation through Juvenile Court order, special circumstance of great disparity of incomes, and Trial Courts focus on childs best interests. The Appellate Court notes that Fathers extraordinarily high income entitled Child to more than guideline support (even if it benefitted Mother) and the support order ensured that Child could continue to live in familiar surroundings.
With respect to Trial Courts denial of accounting or trust, the Appellate Court, relying on In re Marriage of Chandler (1997) 60 Cal.App.4th 124 [abuse of discretion to impose trust that restricts recipients use of child support funds], finds that Trial Court did not err by denying Fathers “somewhat audacious request” because Fathers request for accounting was based on speculation and imposition of trust would have undermined Mothers attempts at reunification and harmed the Child. The Appellate Court also finds that Fathers pleadings did not contain sufficiently detailed information and evidence to warrant extreme measure of imposing trust.
With respect to Trial Courts denial of Fathers second modification request, the Appellate Court determines that Trial Court did not err by finding no material change of circumstances and refusing to order modification.
With respect to attorneys fee awards, the Appellate Court concludes that Trial Court did not err in making fee orders because Father failed to show that orders were abuse of discretion. According to Appellate Court, Trial Court carefully and thoroughly analyzed issues, and significant disparity in parties incomes which supported the fee orders to ensure that Mother was not “litigated out of the case” by Fathers greater ability to finance barrage of litigation.