California Court Holds Social Security Benefits May Apply to Child Support Arrears

Paper FamilyA court order for child support in a divorce case or child custody dispute between two parents is a serious matter. The parent who is obligated to make the child support payments will be expected to adhere to the court order or else face possible legal action. When the support payment is not made, the amount due is considered “in arrears,” and courts may apply interest to the amount outstanding. California family law governs a parent’s obligation to pay and sets forth legal requirements for collection. If you are facing a divorce or another family law dispute involving children, it is extremely important to protect your rights. The best course of action is to reach out to an experienced San Diego family law lawyer as soon as possible.

Child support cases can vary a great deal from one family to the next, and in some situations, they can become quite complicated. In a recent California case, the parents were in a dispute over whether the father’s derivative Social Security benefits could be applied to the amount of child support payments that he failed to pay for several years. Here, the mother and the father had one child together. In 2003, a court ordered the father to pay $507 in monthly child support payments to the mother. Over the succeeding years, the payments were incrementally reduced. By 2011, the family court held a hearing and reduced the amount of monthly support to $8.50.

At that hearing, however, the court also found that the father owed over $16,000 in child support arrears for the years 2007 through July 2011. Therefore, the court ordered the father to pay $150 per month toward the arrears plus interest. At some point, the father started receiving Social Security disability benefits, with “derivative” benefits for his daughter (which were paid to the mother on her behalf). At another hearing in early 2015, the court concluded that the father had paid a little more than $5,000 in the arrears owed from 2011 through June 2014, reducing the amount to approximately $11,000.

The court concluded that beginning in August 2014, the Social Security derivative payment would satisfy the father’s monthly support obligation. But the court was not sure whether it had the authority to apply the excess Social Security payments toward the father’s arrears. Since the parties failed to provide legal briefs on the issue, the court held that the father still owed the $11,000 in arrears. The father appealed, arguing that the court erred in so ruling, claiming that the excess Social Security derivative benefits could be applied to the arrears predating the receipt of those benefits.

The court of appeals agreed, noting that Family Code Section 4504, when read in conjunction with the Code of Civil Procedure Section 695.221, authorizes the use of such benefits for the payment of child support arrears. The court looked at the language of both statutes and distinguished an earlier court opinion that reached the opposite conclusion by pointing out that the statute had been revised after the decision was rendered. The change in the language served to contradict the earlier opinion.

Here, the court concluded that the father could apply his excess derivative Social Security benefits to satisfy child support arrears. The outcome in this case firmly illustrates the need to be aware of every change to the laws applicable to family law cases. For this reason alone, you are encouraged to contact an experienced family law attorney from the local area to handle your case. For more than 20 years, Roy M. Doppelt has been representing clients in divorce and other family law matters in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt & Forney through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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