What happens if you’re paying child support through Child Support Services of Tennessee and you discover that they have taken too much of your money? It used to be that the State would say that you’ve just made an involuntary gift to the other parent, and you should be happy for the opportunity. Fortunately, the courts have finally introduced some sanity into the situation. Several cases released this year involve judgments for overpaid child support, but my favorite was Phillips v. Phillips.
The parties were divorced in 1999 and the court ordered Father to pay to Mother child support in the amount of $117 per week. Mother returned to court several times to enforce child support, but in March of 2002, the court suspended Father’s child support obligation due to a disability. Father managed to get behind on his support payments, so while his current support was suspended, he was required to continue to make payments toward his arrearage.
In 2012, Father petitioned the court to have the payments reduced. The Court found that not only had all of the arrearage been paid, but Child Support Services took $1,521 more from Father than they should have. The Court ordered Child Support Services to return this money to Father.
The State of Tennessee says it gets to keep the money
The State of Tennessee initially took the order back to the Judge and argued that the Court couldn’t order the return of the money because the State wasn’t properly notified of the hearing. The Judge considered the State’s argument, then decided that Child Support Services should actually return $1,989 to Father rather than only $1,521.
The State of Tennessee still says it should keep the money
The State appealed the Judge’s decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The State argued that the law of sovereign immunity protected the State from an order for reimbursement of the funds.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity is intended to protect the government from lawsuits for money damages. These laws are in place in order to keep the state from constantly having to defend itself against millions of lawsuits for every little thing people can dream up. This protection is only effective when the State is operating within the law. If the State oversteps its authority or otherwise operates outside of the law, an opportunity for a lawsuit is created.
In this case, the Court noted that the State wasn’t arguing that it didn’t collect too much money from Father. The Court could find no law or reasoning to support the State’s argument that Father was not entitled to be reimbursed for money that taken from him in error. The Court further pointed out that Father wasn’t trying to recover damages, he was simply trying to recover his own property that was in the State’s possession.
Furthermore, the collection of an excess amount of funds from Father was not done pursuant to any law of Tennessee. This was essentially a mistake made by Child Support Services (who works as an agent of the State of Tennessee), and should be corrected.
In the end, Father was awarded a judgment for $1,989, to be paid by the State of Tennessee.
If you are in a situation where you have paid more in child support than you should have, contact me to find out how I may be able to help you.