Failure to pay child support can result in serious consequences. Maryland has a strong policy disfavoring those who avoid their child support obligations. However, there are a number of technical rules and time limitations that apply in order to compel a parent to pay child support arrearages.
In a 2009 case, a circuit court found a man in constructive civil contempt for failing to pay child support that had been ordered in 1987. Before the contempt finding, the man had asked the petition for civil contempt to be dismissed. He argued that the Department of Human Resources had not properly served him with the paperwork.
The case arose when a baby was born in 1983. Four years later, the baby’s mother filed a petition to establish the baby’s paternity and claimed that the man was the baby’s father. He responded by entering into a consent paternity degree that obligated him to pay $20 per week in child support. The decree also required him to obtain consent to leave the state, report address changes to the Bureau of Support Enforcement, and to appear in response to any related notices.
In subsequent years, the man made no child support payments. After a few years, the woman asked the court to issue a contempt of court show cause order. The court ordered the man to appear and explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt. Copies of the petition and order were left at the man’s address.
Five years later, another petition for contempt of court show cause order was filed, alleging he was in contempt of court. Again, a show cause order was issued and left under the door at his last known address. He again failed to appear. A paternity contempt arrest warrant was issued. He was only arrested, however, 12 years after that.
At his bail review hearing, he was again required to appear to offer an explanation for why he shouldn’t be held in contempt. A public defender representing him filed a motion to dismiss the contempt petition, claiming the court did not have jurisdiction over the man because he had not been served personally in accord with the Maryland Rules. He argued that leaving the order under the door was not sufficient and service of the paternity contempt warrant was invalid because the warrant had not been issued properly. He also argued service was inadequate for technical reasons.
The Circuit Court denied the motion. The man appeared, and the court found him in constructive civil contempt. Disposition was deferred. He appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court. It found that the consent paternity decree itself gave the man notice that he was obliged to pay child support and that the Circuit Court got personal jurisdiction before the paternity proceedings and continued to maintain jurisdiction to enforce the consent decree.
The man asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to review the case and determine whether, by the 2007 contempt hearings, the court lacked personal jurisdiction over him. The Court of Appeals agreed with the man. It explained that, before a court imposes a personal obligation on someone, it has to obtain personal jurisdiction.
The Maryland Rules governing service of process have to be followed. If someone fails to comply with the rules, the court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction. The record in this case showed that the address where the paperwork was left was only one of a number of potential addresses. The court further explained that a defendant must receive notice and be given an opportunity to be heard at each new step in a case. The first notice of the decree order could not be used to create personal jurisdiction for the contempt proceedings. Additionally, there was a statute of limitations issue. A contempt proceeding for failure to pay child support is to be brought within three years of the date that a support payment is due.
Child support and paternity present sensitive issues that require special care. Contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney for representation and legal guidance.
Corporal Punishment in Maryland Family Law, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, January 26, 2013
Untimely Objections in Maryland Family Law, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, January 10, 2013