News: CJ Exclusives

Court Rules on Child-Support Issue

Judges clarify that assistance is not parent subsidy, can't offset child support

North Carolina social-service agencies can provide financial incentives to families that adopt “special needs” children, but not all marriages last. What effect do these adoptive-assistance payments have in determining child-support payments? The answer, according to the state’s second-highest court, is they should be treated as income to the children, not as subsidies to the parents, and that they do not fully offset the need for child support.

April and Randy Miller married in 1999 and later adopted two special-needs children. To encourage the adoption, Gaston County Social Services agreed to provide assistance of $415 per child per month ($830 total) until each child reached the age of 18.

In March 2003, the Millers separated. April Miller provided primary care for the children and soon sought child-support payments from her husband. While April was unemployed, her husband took in $4,607 per month from his job at the post office and military retirement benefits. Though qualifying for adoption-assistance funds, there were no extraordinary costs associated with raising the children. The state’s social-service guidelines suggest that $918 per month is the presumptive amount in child support Randy Miller should have to pay, but a district court judge determines the exact amount based upon the unique facts of each case.

At a hearing September 2003, Randy Miller argued that this presumptive amount of $918 was too high given the $830 monthly adoption-assistance money the children were already receiving, and that this amount should be credited toward his obligation of $918. District Judge James Jackson agreed, to a point. He ordered Randy Miller to pay $752 a month in child support, the presumptive $918 less 20 percent of the amount of the adoption incentive. The judge based the percentage reduction on the percent of time Randy Miller had custody of the children.

Upon appeal, the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling.

“The North Carolina Administrative Code states that ‘payments may be made to children who meet the requirements set out…’”, wrote Judge Rick Elmore for the court. “Thus, the regulations applicable to adoption assistance payments specify that such payments are a resource of the adopted child, not a subsidy to the parent.”

The court also noted that an Arizona appellate court faced with a similar set of facts had reached the same conclusion.

The N.C. Court of Appeals also rejected Randy Miller’s argument that this outcome was inequitable and a windfall to his wife. The appeals court noted that district court judges have wide discretion in determining the appropriate amount of child support and that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in determining that $752 per month was appropriate.

The case is Gaston Cty. ex rel. Miller v. Miller, (04-157).

Michael Lowery is associate editor of Carolina Journal.