Divorce decrees and settlement agreements are ordered/entered into based on the circumstances as they exist at that time. However, things change and children get older and, sometimes, the original order or agreement does not work as well and must be modified. Sometimes the parties can make slight modifications without going to court, and other times a new order is necessary to reflect major changes to the original. An interesting example of this situation can be seen in the recent case of Jackson v. Sanders. Jackson v. Sanders, A15A0127, Court of Appeals of Georgia (2015).
In that case, the parties divorced in 2001, and the Final Decree required Jackson (the father) to pay Sanders (the mother) $1,005/month in child support. Id. In 2012, however, the parties agreed that, instead of Jackson paying the child support directly to Sanders, he would pay the equivalent amount to the child’s new private school for Sanders’ portion of tuition. There was even written proof of this new agreement showing that both parties agreed to it. Despite the agreement and written proof, Sanders filed a counterclaim against Jackson in his filed custody modification action seeking over $14,000 in past due child support. At the hearing, Sanders “did not dispute that she agreed to this financial arrangement, but said they she told Jackson that she would only agree to it if he would agree not to “take [her] back to court.” Sanders further agued that the parties could not permissibly modify child support without a court order. After Jackson lost on this issue at the trial court level, he appealed and the Court of Appeals of Georgia agreed with him.
In general, the trial court was correct that a modification to child support is only enforceable with a court order, the Court of Appeals of Georgia pointed out an important exception to this rule, which includes: “situations where the mother has consented to the father’s voluntary expenditures as an alternative to his child support obligation, or where the father has been in substantial compliance with…the divorce decree, for example, where he has discontinued child support payments while he had the care and custody of the children and supported them at the mother’s request.” Id. (citing Daniel v. Daniel, 239 Ga. 466, 468 (1977)). In this case, the parties clearly agreed that the tuition would be paid in lieu of direct child support payments. As such, Jackson was current in his child support obligation.
This case should be a lesson for those with existing child support orders. If you and your ex are changing the payment terms in any way, get it in writing. Even though you may be presently on good terms with each other, this can easily change and you need to protect yourself in the eyes of the court if your ex chooses to make things difficult for you.