Child Support Modification

A case originating in Hamilton County Iowa was recently reviewed and decided by the Iowa Court of Appeals.  In their decision, the court affirmed the decision of the district court to deny the petitioner’s request to modify their dissolution decree.

Case Background

The original divorce decree involved in this case was entered in March of 1999.  The parties, Kevin Arndt and Shanon Green had two children during the course of their marriage, a son and a daughter.  In the decree, the couple agreed to joint legal custody with Shanon retaining physical care of the children.  However, the couple ended up alternating care of the children every two weeks.  Kevin was ordered to pay $300 in support every month in child support.

Modifications of the Dissolution Decree

There were several modifications made to the decree including one increase and one decrease to the amount of support Kevin was ordered to pay.  The modifications were made in 2001 and 2003.  There was also a modification to the custody arrangement of the children.  A second modification in 2003 ordered the couple to alternate care of the children on a weekly basis and neither was required to pay child support.

Shanon petitioned the court again in 2009 to modify the decree so that the physical care of the children be placed with her.  In order to modify the decree, Shanon was required to show a “substantial and material change in circumstances” had occurred.  She alleged that her ex-husband  was not exercising his weeks of childcare, that he had stopped communicating with her, and that he was failing to “properly guide” their son who was involved in delinquency proceedings at the time.

District Court’s Decision Regarding the Modification Petition

By the time the case actually came to trial, the parties had come to the agreement that their son should be placed in the physical care of Kevin, however, could not stipulate to the placement of their 15 year old daughter.  Because of the daughter’s age, her opinion was taken into consideration.  She liked being with her mother during the week because it accommodated her scheduled activities, however, was clear that she preferred being with her father when it did not interfere with her activities.

The District Court ruled that Shanon had not met her burden to establish material and substantial change in circumstances.  Shanon appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Iowa Child Custody Modification Law

 

“Once a physical care arrangement is established, the party seeking to modify it bears a heightened burden, and we will modify the arrangement only for most cogent reasons.”  Dale v. Pearson, 555 N.W.2d 243, 245 (Iowa Ct. App. 1996).

There is a high burden to meet if a party wants to modify a decree of the court.  The petitioner must establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the circumstances since the decree was entered have changed to substantially and materially that the children’s best interests necessitate a change to the decree.  The circumstances necessitating the change to the decree must not have already been considered by the court when the decree was entered and must not be temporary.

If the court decides that this first burden has been met, they will then decide if the petitioning party is able to care more effectively for the child.

Factors to be considered in modifying custody include:

  1. Best interests of the children
  2. Child’s preference (but less weight in modification than in initial custody proceedings)
  3. Siblings should not be separated
  4. Conduct of the custodial parent (including whether the parent encourages and facilitates the child’s relationship with the other parent),including denial of visitation or contact.
  5. Stability for the Child

 

IA Court of Appeals Decision

The court did not find the evidence supported a change in the share care arrangement of the parties.  Shanon failed to show a substantial and material change in circumstances to necessitate a modification to the dissolution decree.  The court did find evidence to support a modification to Kevin’s ordered amount of child support.  Kevin is now ordered to pay $173.13 in support of the two children.

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The Iowa Court of Appeals recently affirmed  the decision of a Hamilton County Court to dismiss the child support modification application of Amy Eger.  Ms. Eger and her former husband Michael married in 1997 and had 2 sons.  Their stipulated divorce decree included shared legal custody and joint physical care of their children.  Because the couple earned similar incomes and was sharing the responsibility of their sons’ care, neither party was required to pay child support.

Application to Modify Child Support

Two years after the divorce decree was entered, Amy filed an application seeking to increase Michael’s child support amount from $0 to $240.78.  Amy claimed that the original arrangement differs more than 10% form the Iowa child support guidelines.  Alternatively, Michael testified that he does indeed already pay to support his son’s sports activities and contributes financially when he has physical care of the boys every other week.  He also argues that their individual incomes have not changed since their divorce.  (He earned approximately $40,000 and she earned approximately $33,000).

Analysis of the Court in Affirming Decision to Dismiss Child Support Modification Application

The Iowa Court of Appeals reviews child support modification proceedings de novo.  The “de novo” standard of review means that the court will consider all legal and factual issues anew, giving weight to the trial court’s findings of fact, especially the credibility of witnesses, but are not bound by the court’s findings.

Modifying Child Support Orders

“Substantial Change in Circumstances”

To successfully modify child support in Iowa, Amy must establish there has been a “substantial change in the circumstances of the parties” since the time of the decree.  The decree that was originally entered was final as to the circumstances existing at the time.  Therefore, if there is a substantial change in those circumstances, the court will be allowed to modify the amount of support originally set.

“Injustice” or “Failure to do Equity”

In addition to the substantial change in circumstances, Amy must also establish that continued enforcement of the original child support order would result in a wrong or injustice.

In denying Amy’s application for support modification, the District Court found that there was a 10% difference between what Michael should be paying and what he was required to pay.  However, unfortunately for Amy, this difference existed at the time the decree was stipulated to.  Therefore, the court decided that to apply the child support guidelines at this point, and not earlier when the decree was agreed upon would be inequitable.

Regretting the Original Decree

The Appeals Court concludes that Amy, “now regretting at the time of divorce, seeks to use a “mechanical” application of the Iowa Code to get out of her commitment.”  The court explains that all of the circumstances that are now true, were also true or could have been reasonably anticipated when the original divorce decree was agreed to.  Ultimately, they find that Amy has not established a substantial change in circumstances to justify a modification to the child support agreement.

The court also finds that the continued enforcement of the decree requiring neither party to pay support does not result in any wrong or injustice.

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