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State ex rel. Nichols v. Songstad

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 17, 2018

STATE EX REL. JANA RUTH ALFORD NICHOLS
v.
RANDALL NELSON SONGSTAD

          Session April 17, 2018

          Appeal from the Juvenile Court for Shelby County No. Z4904 Nancy Percer Kessler, Special Judge

         Father unilaterally modified his child support obligation without submitting a petition to modify to the trial court because his oldest child emancipated. The trial court found that Father had impermissibly modified his child support obligation based, inter alia, on the fact that Father failed to follow the Child Support Guidelines. Discerning no error, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Juvenile Court Affirmed

          Daniel Loyd Taylor and John N. Bean, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Randall Nelson Songstad.

          Herbert H. Slatery, III, Attorney General and Reporter; Brian A. Pierce, Assistant Attorney General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee, Department of Human Services.

          Lee Ann Pafford Dobson, Germantown, Tennessee, for the appellee, Jana Ruth Alford Nichols.

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which W. Neal McBrayer and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Facts

         The facts in this case are largely undisputed. Randall Nelson Songstad ("Father") and Jana Ruth Alford Nichols ("Mother") were divorced in the Chancery Court of Shelby County ("chancery court") on January 30, 2006. A Permanent Parenting Plan ("the plan") was entered on May 17, 2006, which required Father to pay child support for the parties' two minor children in the amount of $1, 154.00 per month. The plan included the language "[t]he parents acknowledge that court approval must be obtained before child support can be reduced or modified." Father and Mother both signed the plan.

         In 2011, the eldest of the parties' two children emancipated after she graduated high school. After her emancipation, Father unilaterally prorated his child support payments by approximately fifty percent without filing a petition to modify or bringing his modification request before the court in any way. Mother, however, accepted Father's reduced child support payments for the next four years, until the parties' youngest child also emancipated in 2014.[1]

         Mother, who became a Texas resident after the parties' divorce, applied for Title IV-D assistance[2] in Texas in 2014. After receiving little to no assistance in Texas, Mother filed for contempt in the chancery court. The State of Tennessee ("the state") then filed a notice of Title IV-D services and a notice to transfer to the Shelby County Juvenile Court ("juvenile court") in the chancery court on July 7, 2015. The matter was administratively transferred to the juvenile court pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-5-402.[3] The state then filed a petition to establish arrears and/or to modify order on September 30, 2015, in the juvenile court. The matter was continued several times and was finally heard on June 9, 2016, by Magistrate Debra Sanders. The juvenile magistrate entered her findings and recommendations on June 21, 2016, in which the magistrate granted, in part, the petition to establish arrears and modify child support, as to the establishment of arrears only. The Magistrate additionally established arrears in the amount of $29, 994.00 to be paid monthly by Father in the amount of $1, 154.00 beginning July 1, 2016. Father filed a timely motion to rehear requesting a rehearing before the Presiding Judge.[4]

         On July 27, 2016, Special Judge Nancy Percer Kessler heard the case.[5] The court entered an order on the same day finding that Father's request for rehearing was granted and taken under advisement. The juvenile court entered its final order on August 25, 2016, in which it found that Father was in arrears in the amount of $29, 994.00. Father timely appealed this order.

         Issue

         Father presents one issue on appeal, which we have slightly restated: Whether the trial court erred in not allowing Father to prorate his child support upon his ...


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