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Eugene Dale Swaney v. the State of Wyoming

July 8, 2011

EUGENE DALE SWANEY, APPELLANT (RESPONDENT),
v.
THE STATE OF WYOMING, DEPARTMENT OF FAMILY SERVICES, CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT, APPELLEE (PETITIONER).



Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Voigt, Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT, and BURKE, JJ.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

[¶1] Mother and Father, though unmarried, had three children together. After the parties separated, Mother filed a Petition to Establish Paternity, Custody and Child Support. Mother obtained custody of the children and Father was ordered to pay child support. Father later became disabled, which eventually led to the issue presently before this Court: what credit, if any, should Father receive for disability benefit payments received after the disability was determined, against child support arrearages owed before he became disabled. We will affirm the district court's denial of credit, but as a matter of law, rather than as a matter of exercised discretion.

ISSUE

[¶2] May the district court credit Social Security disability benefits paid to dependent children against child support arrearages owed before the obligor became disabled?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶3] Usually, we review district court determinations regarding child support for an abuse of discretion. Starkey v. Starkey, 2007 WY 106, ¶ 5, 161 P.3d 515, 516 (Wyo. 2007). To the extent that our determination requires statutory construction, which is a question of law, our review is de novo. Boe v. State ex rel. Wyo. Workers' Safety & Comp. Div. (In re Boe), 2009 WY 115, ¶ 7, 216 P.3d 494, 496 (Wyo. 2009); State ex rel. Wyo. Dep't of Revenue v. Hanover Compression, LP, 2008 WY 138, ¶ 8, 196 P.3d 781, 784 (Wyo. 2008); Alcorn v. Sauer Drilling Co., 2006 WY 15, ¶ 6, 126 P.3d 924, 925 (Wyo. 2006).

FACTS

[¶4] The salient facts of this case are not many, and the details of child support amounts, payments, arrearages, and modifications are not relevant to resolution of the dispute. Mother obtained custody of the parties' children and Father was ordered to pay child support. Father's efforts in that regard were less than stellar, and child support arrearages developed. Due to a disability arising after the initial court order, Father's child support obligation was modified downward in a later order. Eventually, Father was approved for Social Security disability benefits, and both he and the children received lump sum payments for the period retroactive to the date Father became eligible for benefits, as well as future monthly disability benefits payments.*fn1

[¶5] In a series of orders, the district court gave Father credit against his child support arrearages back to the date he became eligible for benefits, based upon the amount of the lump sum retroactive payments received by the children. The district court also gave Father credit for amounts that had been withheld from his monthly disability payments under an income withholding order obtained by the Department of Family Services, Child Support Enforcement, for the period after he became disabled, but before he became eligible to receive benefits. Based upon equitable considerations, however, the district court refused to credit any of the disability payments against arrearages existing on the date Father became disabled. Father appeals from that denial.

DISCUSSION

[¶6] We have previously dealt with the issue of how Social Security disability benefit payments fit into the calculation of a child support obligation. See Groenstein v. Groenstein, 2005 WY 6, ¶¶ 19-31, 104 P.3d 765, 770-74 (Wyo. 2005). In short, benefit payments received directly by children are counted as part of the obligor's income, but are also then credited against the resultant child support obligation. Id. Those conclusions are now codified at Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-304(e) (LexisNexis 2011), which reads as follows:

(e) If a proportion of a support obligor's social security or veteran's benefit is paid directly to the custodian of the obligor's dependents who are the subject of the child support order, the total amount of the social security or veteran's benefit, including the amounts paid to the obligor and custodian under the child support order, shall be counted as gross income to the obligor. However, in determining the support amount, the amount of the social security or veteran's benefit sent directly to the custodian shall be subtracted from the obligor's share of presumptive support. If the subtraction of the social security or veteran's benefit sent directly to the custodian results in a negative dollar amount, the support amount shall be set at zero. The child support obligation shall be offset by the amount of the social security or veteran's benefit sent directly to the custodian, beginning from the time the custodian began receiving the social security or veteran's benefit. The obligor or the department of family services may apply to the court to receive a credit against arrears for any social security ...


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