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Wojtala v. Wojtala

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

June 23, 2017

Felicia Wojtala
v.
Thomas Wojtala

         Appeal from Henry Circuit Court (DR-14-900049)

          THOMPSON, Presiding Judge.

         On September 16, 2014, Felicia Wojtala ("the mother") filed in the Henry Circuit Court ("the trial court") a complaint seeking a divorce from Thomas Wojtala ("the father"). In her complaint, the mother sought an award of joint legal and joint physical custody of the parties' two minor children, an equitable property division, and an award of alimony and child support. The mother also requested pendente lite support. The father answered and counterclaimed, seeking an award of joint legal and joint physical custody of the parties' minor children and a division of the parties' marital property.

         The mother filed three separate motions seeking pendente lite support, and the trial court conducted a hearing on those motions on January 29, 2015. Although the parties refer to an "order" issued by the trial court following that January 29, 2015, hearing, no pendente lite support order is contained in the record or was entered on the State Judicial Information System. In his brief on appeal, the father refers to that pendente lite "order" as a "verbal" order or instruction. It appears from the parties' references, both below and in their briefs to this court, to that pendente lite "order" that the trial court orally instructed the father to pay household bills pending the final hearing on the merits.

         The trial court conducted a hearing on the parties' claims, and on May 6, 2016, it entered an order in which it awarded custody of the parties' minor children to the mother, ordered the father to pay child support, and divided the parties' marital property. The mother filed a purported postjudgment motion, which the trial court denied, and the mother appealed.

         This court remanded the action to the trial court for a determination of the mother's claim for postminority support for the parties' minor children. On February 23, 2017, the trial court entered a judgment in which it denied the postminority-support claim. This court later again remanded the action for the trial court to rule on all of the pending property-division claims.[1] On March 30, 2017, the trial court entered an order awarding the mother 20% of the father's military-retirement benefits. That order, because it disposed of the last of the pending claims between the parties, constituted a final judgment. See Smith v. Butler-Austin, 108 So.3d 1014, 1020 (Ala. Civ. App. 2012) (opinion on return to remand) ("Those judgments disposed of the remaining pending claims between the parties and, therefore, constituted a final judgment in this matter.").

         The record reveals the following pertinent facts. The parties married in August 1985. Two children were born of the parties' marriage; at the time of the entry of the divorce judgment, those two children were no longer minors. During their marriage, the parties had also adopted two children, both of whom were still minors at the time of the entry of the divorce judgment. For the purpose of this opinion, we refer to those two minor children as "the son" and "the daughter." The son and the daughter have special needs. The State of Hawaii, where the son and the daughter were adopted, provides a stipend for the children that they will continue to receive until they reach the age of majority. The son reached the age of majority for Hawaii, i.e., 18 years of age, in May 2016. See Haw. Rev. Stat. § 577-1; but see § 26-1-1, Ala. Code 1975 (the age of majority in Alabama is 19). The daughter will reach the age of majority for Hawaii in December 2017.

         The son has had some behavioral problems, and the mother testified that he has Attention-Deficit Disorder ("ADD") and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"). The daughter has bipolar disorder, and she lived in a treatment facility for all except one month of the nearly two-year period during which the parties were separated. The daughter's treatment in that facility was paid by Medicaid. During the time she was in that in-patient treatment facility, the mother continued to receive the stipend for both the son and the daughter; we note that the father received and deposited that stipend for several months following the parties' separation when the son was living with him. The mother admitted she had spent little to none of the adoption stipend on the daughter during the time the daughter was in the treatment facility.

         The mother testified that she received $300 in income every two weeks from a restaurant owned by her boyfriend and in which she worked; the father's questioning of the mother could have made the trial court question the veracity of the mother's claimed income. Regardless, the mother conceded that she had, until recently, worked for $9 an hour and that she was capable of earning at that income level for full-time employment.

         The father has retired from the military, and he receives $3, 353.52 monthly in military-retirement income. In addition, the father testified that he earned $50 per hour as a maintenance test pilot for the Army Fleet Support. The father testified that his income from that job was approximately $90, 000 in the year before the divorce hearing.

         In its divorce judgment, the trial court determined that, under the Rule 32, Ala. R. Jud. Admin., child-support guidelines, the father's child-support obligation for the son and the daughter should be $1, 594.01. We note that the record on appeal does not contain the child-support forms that Rule 32 and our caselaw require be submitted to the trial court and included by the trial court in its judgment. Lightel v. Myers, 791 So.2d 955, 961 (Ala. Civ. App. 2000). However, the trial court then credited the father with the entire $1, 352 monthly adoption stipend for those children, and it thereby reduced the father's child-support obligation and ordered the father to pay $242 per month as child support.[2]

         The mother argues on appeal that the trial court erred in offsetting the father's child-support obligation by affording him a credit in the amount of the adoption subsidy received for the benefit of the son and the daughter. In W.R. v. C.R., 75 So.3d 159 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011), this court held that an adoption subsidy could not serve as a credit against a support-paying spouse's child-support obligation. In that case, the mother was awarded custody of the parties' adopted special-needs children, and the father argued that he should receive a credit for at least half of the amount of the adoption subsidy the parties received as a result of adopting the special-needs children. This court analyzed whether an adoption subsidy for special-needs children is intended to be a substitute for a parent's income or a supplement to that income. This court noted that payments from a third-party source may be offset against a child-support obligation if those third-party payments are intended to be a substitute for the parent's income, but that no offset was available if the third-party payments are intended to be a supplement to the parent's or parents' income. 75 So.3d at 166-67. The court also pointed out that, had the parents not divorced, the children would have had the benefit of both parents' income together with the adoption subsidy. This court concluded that "the adoption subsidy is supplemental to the adoptive parents' income, and, as such, the subsidy cannot serve as a credit against the father's child-support obligation." W.R. v. C.R., 75 So.3d at 169.

         After reaching that conclusion in W.R. v. C.R., supra, this court noted that the father had argued that the trial court should have deviated from the Rule 32 child-support guidelines. "'A trial court has the discretion to deviate from the child support guidelines in situations where it finds the application of the guidelines would be manifestly unjust or inequitable.'" W.R. v. C.R., 75 So.3d at 169 (quoting State ex rel. Golden v. Golden, 710 So.2d 924, 926 (Ala. Civ. App. 1998)). This court held that, under the facts of that case, the trial court had not abused its discretion in refusing to deviate from the child-support guidelines.

         The father in this case, arguing in support of the trial court's judgment, contends that the trial court deviated from the Rule 32 child-support guidelines in reaching that part of its judgment pertaining to child support. The father cites a case from Minnesota in which the court held that, in addition to considering the parents' ability to meet the child's needs, the Minnesota child-support statutes required that the needs and financial resources of the child could be considered in determining child support. See Strandberg v. Strandberg, 664 N.W.2d 887 (Minn.Ct.App. 2003). In that case, however, the father's ability to pay child support was at issue because of his low income.

"In this case, excluding the adoption subsidy from consideration in setting child support produces an unreasonable result. The overarching policy of the child support statute is to ensure that children's needs are met. Murphy v. Murphy, 574 N.W.2d 77, 81 (Minn.App. 1998). The child support statute and guidelines are also based on the obligor's ability to pay. Schneider [v. Schneider], 473 N.W.2d [329, ] 332 [(Minn.Ct.App. 1991)]. In light of those principles, it is reasonable to consider the adoption subsidy as a resource available for meeting the child's needs, particularly in cases like this where the obligor parent cannot cover his own expenses. It is inappropriate to have litigants pushed into poverty by child support obligations that are set without considering ...

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