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Maher v. Woodruff

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 13, 2017

CHERYL S. MAHER
v.
JOSEPH A. WOODRUFF

          Session February 22, 2017

         Direct Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. I-98361 J. Russell Parkes, Judge, Sitting by Interchange

         This is a post-divorce case involving wife's claims against husband for a portion of his military retirement benefits and husband's claims against wife for retroactive child support. Wife initiated this action against husband claiming that, pursuant to the parties' marital dissolution agreement, she was entitled to a percentage of the retirement benefits that husband was receiving from the military, as well as a judgment for a portion of the benefits that had already been paid to husband. Husband then filed a counter-petition against wife requesting that the court enter a judgment against her for back child support. The trial court held that the parties' martial dissolution agreement did in fact entitle wife to a percentage of husband's military retirement benefits going forward but that she failed to present the proof required for an award of the benefits husband received prior to trial. The trial court further found that wife owed husband child support and calculated the amount of child support wife owed by using the Child Support Guidelines that were in effect at the time wife's child support obligation was incurred rather than those in effect at the time of trial. Wife appealed. We reverse the judgment of the trial court with respect to the calculation of wife's child support obligation and remand with instructions to re-calculate child support using the Child Support Guidelines in effect at the time of trial. We modify the order of the trial court to correct the percentage of the retirement benefits to which wife is entitled. The remainder of the judgment is affirmed. We decline husband's request for attorney's fees incurred on appeal.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in part as Modified, Reversed in part, and Remanded

          Jacob P. Mathis, Clarksville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Cheryl S. Maher.

          Donald N. Capparella, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Jospeh A. Woodruff.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and W. Neal McBrayer, J., joined.

          OPINION

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE.

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         The material facts in this case are largely undisputed. Appellant, Cheryl S. Maher ("Wife"), and Appellee, Joseph A. Woodruff ("Husband"), married on August 4, 1979. Two children were born of the marriage, a son in 1983 and a daughter in 1986. Husband was an attorney and an officer in the United States Army at the time of the parties' marriage, serving continuously on active duty until September 29, 1987. He then served in the U.S. Army Reserve from September 30, 1987 until April 28, 1995. On April 28, 1995, the Army issued an order transferring Husband to the "Retired Reserve." Wife was also an attorney, although she did not maintain consistent employment throughout the marriage.

         On June 3, 1998, Husband filed a complaint for divorce. The parties were both represented by counsel and mediated an agreement on the terms of the divorce and custody of the children. On September 2, 1998, the trial court entered a final decree of divorce, which incorporated the parties' marital dissolution agreement by reference. Pursuant to this decree, the parties shared custody of the children, and Husband was required to pay Wife $1, 500.00 per month in child support. The marital dissolution agreement further provided:

Husband has retired from the United States Army Reserve, and he and Wife may be entitled to receive payments of pension benefits resulting therefrom. Husband agrees that in the event Wife is entitled to benefits therefrom, he will join in the execution of such documents as may be necessary to establish Wife's interest therein as permitted by regulations governing same. Wife shall be entitled to receive the maximum allowable pension benefit available to her through the United States Army Reserve, but in no event more than fifty percent (50%) of same.

         On July 15, 1999, Husband filed a complaint to modify custody and child support. According to Wife, she suffered from chronic mental illness that prevented her from caring for the children during that time. On August 27, 1999, the court transferred custody of the parties' two children to Husband and terminated his obligation to pay child support. Wife admits that she had little to no contact with the children and did not financially support them after the court gave Husband full custody.

         More than sixteen years later, on October 5, 2015, Wife filed a petition for civil and criminal contempt against Husband for his alleged failure to provide her with her share of his military retirement benefits pursuant to the parties' marital dissolution agreement.[1] Wife's petition further sought a judgment against Husband for her share of the military retirement benefits Husband had already received prior to the filing of her petition. Husband denied that he owed any retirement benefits to Wife because, on April 12, 2004, the Department of Army sent Husband a letter stating that he had been "erroneously transferred to the Retired Reserve, " and that he was not eligible for retirement pay at age sixty. After a great deal of effort on husband's part, including returning to the military for a period of time long after his divorce from Wife, he eventually qualified for military retirement benefits, albeit a different type of benefits than he was originally promised. Husband also filed a counter-complaint against Wife seeking back child support for the period during which he maintained sole custody of the parties' children, specifically August 1999 through May 2004.

         At trial, the court was charged with determining five main issues: (1) Whether Wife was entitled to the entry of an order allocating her a portion of Husband's military retirement; (2) If Wife was entitled to a portion of Husband's military retirement benefits, to what amount or percentage was she entitled; (3) Whether Wife was entitled to a judgment for a portion of the retirement benefits that had already been distributed to Husband; (4) Whether Husband was entitled to a judgment against Wife for child support; and (5) If Husband was entitled to a judgment for child support, to what amount was he entitled. On April 11, 2016, the trial court heard argument from counsel for both parties, testimony from Husband and Wife, and reviewed more than twenty exhibits entered into evidence. In a thorough and carefully crafted opinion, the trial court issued a written order on May 6, 2016, in which it determined that Wife was entitled to 30.20838 percent of Husband's retirement benefits going forward, but the court declined to award Wife any portion of the benefits Husband received prior to the hearing because Wife had not presented sufficient proof as to the amount of those benefits. The court also awarded Husband retroactive support in the amount of $36, 246.00 pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines in effect during the years in which Wife's obligation was incurred.

         Wife subsequently filed a motion for the court to reconsider the issues of which Child Support Guidelines applied to her obligation and whether she should be awarded back retirement distributions. On June 20, 2016, the trial court entered a final order denying Wife's motion to reconsider. Wife then timely filed this appeal.

         II. Issues Presented

         Wife presents the following issues for review on appeal, which we have restated:

1. Whether the trial court erred applying the Child Support Guidelines in effect when wife first incurred the obligation to pay child support rather than the Child Support Guidelines in effect when the ...

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