In the case of Seibert v. Fields, a child support case arising out of Madison County, Alabama. When the parties divorced in 2014, the former wife was awarded half of the parties’ joint bank accounts, which was determined to be $21,219.95 in 2016. The former wife initiated an action in 2017 for contempt of court because the former husband failed to pay. The former husband filed a counterclaim where he sought sole custody of both children and child support. The former wife then amended her complaint to seek attorney’s fees from the former husband.
The trial court awarded the former husband sole custody and ordered the former wife to pay $300 per month in child support. The court also found the former husband in contempt for failing to pay the former wife and ordered him to pay the former wife’s attorney’s fees. The court increased the amount owed in child support to $500 after the former husband filed a postjudgment motion. The former husband appealed.
In appealing the contempt finding, the former husband argued that the amount owed was based on a standing order of the trial court which could not be enforced. He also argued that, even if it could be enforced, that the evidence did not support finding him in contempt, which requires willfully failing or refusing to follow a court order. In addressing the contempt arguments, the Appellate Court noted that the amount determined by the trial court was not a standing order because the trial court stated its basis for dividing the bank accounts and this basis was fair and equitable. The Court then rejected the former husband’s insufficient evidence argument, noting that the former husband’s statements at trial that he would pay the amount if required by a valid court judgment could lead the trial court to the conclusion that the former husband could pay the judgment.
The former husband also argued that the attorney’s fees awarded to the former wife were incorrect because the contempt finding was incorrect. The Court rejected this argument.
Finally, the former husband argued that the trial court erred in determining the amount of child support owed by the former wife. He argued that the amount was incorrect for two reasons: first, the trial court erred in the amount of income imputed to him based on unemployment and second, that the trial court erred in deviating from the child support guidelines under Rule 32 based on how little the children visited the former wife.
When determining the incomes to determine child support awards where one of the parties is unemployed, a court looks to whether the unemployment is voluntary or involuntary. If a party’s unemployment is voluntary, then the court will impute the potential and probable income that the party would earn if employed. The Court stated that because the former husband did not put effort into looking for work, admission that he could work, and because there were no longer pending charges against him that would stop him from seeking employment, that the trial court could determine that the former husband was voluntarily unemployed. The Court took issue with the income amount that the trial court imputed, which was equal to the former wife.
When determining the amount of child support owed by a party, trial courts generally must follow the child support guidelines. Courts are allowed to stray from these guidelines when using the guidelines would be unjust or unreasonable. In addressing the circumstances in this case, the Court reasoned that, because a parent who does not have custody or any visitation is subject to the guidelines because children have a fundamental right to support, that a parent with little visitation is subject to the guidelines for the same reason. Accordingly, the Court reversed the child support award and remanded the case so the trial court could determine the income to be imputed on the former husband and to apply Rule 32 guidelines.