Maryland Court Interprets Conflicting Statutes in Child Support Case

Couples with children who decide to divorce must address a series of significant and possibly life-changing issues. In addition to the division of property and spousal support, parents must also face matters of child custody and support. Ideally, parents will agree on the custody situation that is in the best interests of the child. Courts often get involved to approve the arrangement and decide on a fair amount of monthly child support. Keep in mind that parties are able to seek a modification of the amount in the future, should a change of circumstances occur. Courts take very seriously an individual parent’s obligation to make child support payments in a timely fashion and may be called upon to enforce the order. To be sure that your financial and legal rights are protected, you are encouraged to contact an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible.

Maryland law provides local state agencies with the authority to collect overdue child support payments. In a recent Maryland court of appeals case, a local county Office of Child Support Enforcement (the “Office”) attempted to collect a judgment of almost $10,000 against an obligor-parent for unpaid child support. Here, the Office requested a circuit court to issue a writ of garnishment against the obligor’s bank, which in turn suspended the obligor’s two accounts. Under Maryland law (Section 11-504(b)(5)), a judgment creditor may “attach assets” of a debtor to satisfy a money judgment.

In response, the obligor filed a motion to release his two accounts from the court’s levy. He claimed that the attachment law cited allows a judgment debtor to exempt up to $6,000 from a levy to satisfy a money judgment. The court denied the obligor’s motion and ordered the bank to pay the account funds to the Office of Child Support Enforcement. The obligor appealed, arguing that the court erred in finding the exemption to be inapplicable in actions to collect past due child support payments.

The court of appeals sought to “reconcile” two seemingly conflicting statutes:  Section 11-504(b) and the exemptions applicable to judgment debtors with Family Law Section 10-108.3(b)(1), which authorizes an action to attach and seize the amount of child support arrearage in an obligor’s financial account. The court looked at both statutes (read together), the legislative history, and relevant case law, and it concluded that the exemption cited above does not apply to efforts to collect unpaid child support payments. For one, the court pointed out that Title 10 of the Family Law code indicates a strong public policy to provide parties with multiple ways to enforce a child support order in order to preserve and protect the best interests of the child.

Furthermore, the court pointed out an important distinction between the terms “debtor,” used in the attachment statute, and “obligor,” used in the family law provision. Here, debts are typically owed to third parties, whereas an “obligation” pertains to a party’s duty to support dependent children. According to the court, since the Legislature chose the term “obligor” and not “debtor,” it did not intend to allow people who were obligated to pay child support to avoid their legal responsibility.

Clearly, the court ruled in favor of not allowing a party to escape liability for child support arrearages. This ruling is in line with the theory underlying most child custody and support cases. The outcome should serve the best interests of the child. If you are grappling with a family law matter, it is important to make sure that your rights are protected. Anthony A. Fatemi is a seasoned family law attorney with extensive experience representing parties throughout the state of Maryland.  For help with your family law needs, you are encouraged to contact us at (301) 519-2801, or to submit our online contact form.

Related Blog Posts:

State Supreme Court Ruling Obligates Stepfather to Pay Child Support

Maryland Family Code Sets Forth a Schedule to Determine Child Support Obligation

Maryland Court Reviews Issue of Paternity in Child Support Case

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