This modification for child support matter concerns a stipulated (consent) judgment and the applicable standard required for a change of circumstances in requesting a modification. The adequacy of the stipulated child support judgment raises the issues to what extent, if any, are the guidelines applicable and the function of the trial judge as gatekeeper to assure adequacy and consistency in child support awards.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Benita and Robert Stogner were married in Washington Parish on June 26, 1981. They had two children, Jeremy born on September 20, 1987, and Timothy born on July 14, 1990. Benita and Robert separated on January 15, 1994. On April 6, 1994, the trial court, by stipulation of the parties, awarded joint custody of the two minor children to the Stogners, with Benita being the domiciliary parent and Robert paying $400 per month for the support of the children.
Thereafter, on October 28, 1996, approximately two years later, Benita filed a rule nisi for increase of child support. In her petition, Benita alleged that a change of circumstances had occurred and that the child support set initially in 1994 was established without regard for the child support guidelines.
Later, on a motion for new trial, Benita urged that according to La. R.S. 9:315.1(D) the trial court should have considered the guidelines even though the parties had proposed an amount of child support to which both agreed. In its denial of the motion for new trial, the trial court held that a review of the proposed stipulation pursuant to La. R.S. 9:315.1(D) was discretionary with the trial court, and was intended
In an unpublished opinion the Court of Appeal, First Circuit, found that no proof of a
We granted Benita's writ application to consider the lower courts' rulings regarding the discretion of the trial court under La. R.S. 9:315.1(D) and the change that must be shown in a modification action. 98-C-3044 (La.3/19/99), 739 So.2d 214. For the following reasons, we reverse and remand this matter to the trial court, finding that the trial court based its ruling on the stipulated judgment of June 29, 1994, which it then approved without the trial court first considering the guidelines in reviewing the adequacy of the stipulated amount, La. R.S. 9:315.1(A) and (D), and without giving specific oral or written reasons warranting a deviation from the guidelines, La. R.S. 9:315.1(B), all of which rendered this judgment an abridgment of the legislative intent in the enactment of the statutory guidelines, and an error of law. We further find that the appellate court erred as a matter of law in requiring Benita to show a heightened burden of
STIPULATED JUDGMENTS AND THE APPLICABILITY OF THE GUIDELINES
The lower courts relied upon the stipulated judgment of June 29, 1994, in denying Benita a modification of child support. Therefore, we must determine if the adequacy of that stipulated judgment was properly decided and warranted the downward deviation, in assessing the correctness of the denial of the modification.
In assessing the modification of child support, the lower courts, focusing only on Paragraph (D) of La.R.S. 9:315.1, found that there was no duty on the part of the trial court to review the adequacy of the stipulated amount in the initial judgment. After considering Paragraph (D) in light of the entirety of La.R.S. 9:315.1 and reflecting on the legislative intent in that enactment, we find that the trial court's role in
When a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law shall be applied as written and no further interpretation may be made in search of the intent of the legislature. La.Civ.Code art. 9; La.R.S. 1:4. However, when a law is susceptible of different meanings, "it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law." La.Civ.Code art. 10.
Legislative intent is the fundamental question in all cases of statutory interpretation, and rules of statutory construction are designed to ascertain and enforce the intent of the statute. State v. Piazza, 596 So.2d 817 (La.1992). It is likewise presumed that it is the intention of the legislative branch to achieve a consistent body of law. N. SINGER, SUTHERLAND STATUTORY CONSTRUCTION, Sec. 23.09 (Sands 5
La.Civ.Code art. 227 provides that parents, by the very act of marrying, contract together the obligation of supporting, maintaining, and educating their children. The obligation to support their children is conjoint upon the parents and each must contribute in proportion to his or her resources. Hogan v. Hogan, 549 So.2d 267 (La.1989). As a complement to that obligation, La.R.S. 9:315-315.15 provides a detailed set of guidelines that the courts are mandated to follow in setting the amount of child support in "any proceeding to establish or modify child support filed on or after October 1, 1989." La.R.S. 9:315.1(A); Hildebrand v. Hildebrand, 626 So.2d 578 (La.App. 3 Cir.1993). These child support guidelines were enacted in 1989 for a twofold purpose: to address the inconsistency in the amounts of child support awards and as an appropriate solution to the inadequacy of the amounts of these awards. Nations, Louisiana's Child Support Guideline: A Preliminary Analysis, 50 La.L.R. 1057, 1058 (1990); see also The Family Support Act of 1988, Pub.L. 100-485, 102 Stat. 2343 (1988). Under this system of guidelines, the Legislature adopted an income shares approach which combines the adjusted monthly gross income of both parties in arriving at the amount of support owed. BLAKESLY, LOUISIANA FAMILY LAW, § 16.09.1 at 16-19 (Michie 1996). As stated in La.R.S. 9:315.1(A) the amount determined by the guideline formula is presumed to be in the child's best interest. Percle v. Noll, 93-1272 (La.App. 1 Cir. 3/11/94), 634 So.2d 498. Moreover, the parental obligation to pay child support must be implemented within the body of law contained in the Louisiana Child Support Guidelines. La.Civ.Code arts. 227-231; La.R.S. 9:315, et seq.; State in Interest of Travers, 28,022 (La. App. 2 Cir.12/6/95), 665 So.2d 625; BLAKESLY, LOUISIANA FAMILY LAW, § 16.09.1 at 16-19 (Michie 1996). As such, the guidelines are intended to fairly apportion between the parents the mutual financial obligation they owe their children, in an efficient, consistent, and
It is likewise provided in the legislation that there may be deviation from the guidelines if the application of the guidelines would not be in the best interest of the child or would be inequitable to the parties. La.R.S. 9:315.1(B). In this instance, it is incumbent upon the trial court to "give specific oral or written reasons for the deviation, including a finding as to the amount of support that would have been required under a mechanical application of the guidelines and the particular facts and circumstances that warranted a deviation from the guidelines." Id. As such, the function of the guidelines to provide adequacy and consistency in child support awards is served through the establishment of a method of deviation which requires the introduction of an evidentiary basis for such departure into the record. Hildebrand, 626 So.2d at 581.
Prior to the enactment of the child support guidelines, the jurisprudence had further recognized that parents may enter into a consent judgment to establish child support. See Hogan, 549 So.2d at 267; Aldredge v. Aldredge, 477 So.2d 73 (La. 1985); Williams v. Williams, 586 So.2d 658 (La.App. 2 Cir.1991); McDaniel v. McDaniel, 567 So.2d 748 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1990); Chaisson v. Chaisson, 454 So.2d 890 (La.App. 4 Cir.1984). In accordance with that jurisprudence, it is likewise envisioned in the guidelines that there will be instances where the parents will stipulate (consent) to an amount of child support. In that regard, La.R.S. 9:315.1(D) provides:
It is this provision on which we now focus our attention.
In the present case, the lower courts read Paragraph (D) in isolation, concluding that review of the stipulated amount in light of the guidelines was discretionary. We find this a flawed reading of this statutory provision which defeats the purpose of the legislature's intent to ensure adequate and consistent child support awards.
A reading of the lower courts' rulings makes it evident that the one thing not considered was the overriding provision of La.R.S. 9:315.1(A) wherein the legislature provided that the guidelines must be used "in
As directed by the codal articles and jurisprudence in the interpretation of statutes, we find that consideration of the legislative impetus to enact the guidelines convinces us that the language of Paragraph (D) must yield to the mandated review requirements established in Paragraph (A). With that in mind, it is clear that the focal point of Paragraph (D) is its insistence in the second sentence that when the trial court reviews the agreement proposed by the parents, it "shall consider the guidelines ... to review the adequacy of the stipulated amount." This the trial court did not do in the present case. Nor did it give any reasons warranting a deviation from the guidelines.
We hasten to add that although we find that the adequacy of the stipulated amount must be evaluated in light of the guideline's considerations, the trial court is not foreclosed from approving the amount to which the parents have stipulated (consented). As authorized in La.R.S. 9:315.1(B), the trial court, after reviewing the proposed stipulation in light of the considerations enunciated in La.R.S. 9:315.1(C), may nevertheless approve a deviation from the guidelines provided it specifies for the record, either orally or in writing, the reasons for the deviation. Such an approach underscores the integral role of the trial court as gatekeeper in this area of paramount importance. If properly performed in accordance with the guidelines, this judicial review will further assure the adequacy and consistency of child support awards, foster evenhanded settlements,
This analysis is not to be viewed as an abrogation of that body of law which has recognized that a consent (stipulated) judgment is by its nature a bilateral agreement between the parties wherein the parties adjust their differences by mutual consent and thereby put an end to a lawsuit with each party balancing the hope of gain against the fear of loss. McLain v. McLain, 486 So.2d 1044 (La.App. 2 Cir. 1986); Williams, 586 So.2d 658 (La.App. 2 Cir.1991); McDaniel, 567 So.2d 748 (La.App. 2 Cir.1990); Chaisson, 454 So.2d 890 (La.App. 4 Cir.1984). Notwithstanding the freedom of the parties to so agree, parties must remember that their agreements may not "derogate from laws enacted for the protection of the public interest." La.Civ.Code art. 7. In the present instance, it is clear that the stipulated child support recognized in the judgment must conform with the public policy codified in the child support guidelines with its concomitant best interest presumption and mandated adequacy review provisions. Accordingly, we find that pursuant to La. R.S. 9:315.1(A) and (D), the trial court should have "consider[ed] the guidelines set forth [and] ... review[ed] the adequacy of the stipulated amount, ...." before the stipulated judgment was presented to it for signature, and further, the trial court should have given oral or written reasons warranting the deviation from the guidelines, La.R.S. 9:315.1(B).
MODIFICATION OF CHILD SUPPORT: CHANGE OF CIRCUMSTANCES
Although the trial court held that Benita failed to prove a change of circumstances, the appellate court commented in its review of this case that Benita failed to prove a substantial change of circumstances. In brief to this court, Robert argued that Benita failed to show a substantial change of circumstances. It is the appellate court's inclusion of the word substantial that we now address.
La.Civ.Code art. 142 provides as follows:
Despite the words utilized in the above Civil Code article and the Revised Statute, a cursory review of the appellate jurisprudence which addresses the modification of child support shows that the words "substantial change" have been engrafted and relied upon in almost all circuit courts of appeal in this state. See e.g.: Authement v. Authement, 96-1289 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/9/97), 694 So.2d 1129; State v. Reed, 26,896 (La.App. 2 Cir. 6/21/95), 658 So.2d 774; Preis v. Preis, 93-569 (La.App. 3 Cir. 2/2/94), 631 So.2d 1349; Megison v. Megison, 94-152 (La.App. 5 Cir. 9/14/94), 642 So.2d 885, writ denied, 94-2823 (La.1/13/95), 648 So.2d 1344, reconsideration denied, 94-2823 (La.2/17/95), 650 So.2d 258. For reasons which follow, we find that this jurisprudential gloss is erroneous as a matter of law, which unduly heightens the burden for showing a change of circumstances.
"Requiring proof of change of circumstances is, in general, valid, and is useful to prevent relitigation of the same issues and to protect the finality of judgments and compromises." Aldredge, 477 So.2d at 75. However, it is important to recall that a clear and unambiguous provision of law is to be applied as written. La.Civ.Code art. 9; La.R.S. 1:4. In that light, it is evident that neither La.Civ.Code art. 142 nor La.R.S. 9:311 references the need to show that the change relied upon is substantial. As such it is clear that the Legislature has provided that the burden of proving a change in circumstances does not require proof of a substantial change. "A change of circumstances is a change material to the well-being of the child and his or her support that has occurred since the rendering of the original award." BLAKESLY, LOUISIANA FAMILY LAW, § 16.16 at 16-37 (Michie 1996). In the evaluation of these cases, there is no bright line rule as to what constitutes a change of circumstances to warrant modification.
The application of that rule, as so many other related matters, concerning modification of child support clearly falls within the great discretion of the trial court. Accordingly, each case will rise or fall on the peculiar facts adduced and an appellate court will not disturb the trial court's decision in these matters, absent clear abuse of discretion. Rousseau, 685 So.2d at 683.
The lower courts erred as a matter of law in using the parties' stipulated amount of child support in the June 29, 1994 judgment, without first considering the guidelines in reviewing the adequacy of the stipulated amount, La.R.S. 9:315.1(A) and (D), and further erred by failing to give specific oral or written reasons for the deviation, including a finding as to the amount of support that would have been required under a mechanical application of the guidelines and the particular facts and circumstances that warranted a deviation from the guidelines, La.R.S. 9:315.1(B). Further, the court of appeal erred as a matter of law in requiring Benita to show a heightened burden of
In the interim, we order Robert Stogner to continue the payment of child support as provided in the June 29, 1994, judgment of divorce. Considering the lapse of time in the present matter, we further reserve to either party the right to allege any change of circumstances within the intendment of La.Civ.Code art. 142 and La.R.S. 9:311(A) which may have arisen.
The trial court is ordered to hear this matter with preference and priority.
LEMMON, J., concurs and assigns reasons.
VICTORY, J., dissents and assigns reasons by Lemmon, J.
LEMMON, J., Concurring
I agree wholeheartedly with the majority's interpretation of La.Rev.Stat. 9:315.1. I write separately to point out that this court is not reversing the 1994 judgment which was not attacked until two years after it was rendered; rather, this court is reversing the 1997 judgment denying the 1996 motion to increase child support, although that reversal is based on the 1994 error in originally fixing child support. In setting child support on remand based on current circumstances and on the mandatory guidelines, the trial court may not make any increase retroactive beyond the 1996 filing of the motion to increase. La. Rev.Stat. 9:315.21 C.
The underlying problem in this case is the effect given to consent judgments in child support cases. Consent judgments play an important role in family law litigation. Nevertheless, a child should not be prevented, by court-made rules giving a consent judgment the same effect as a considered judgment for purposes of a rule to increase child support, from obtaining the support mandated by law simply because the domiciliary parent made an error (or succumbed to economic or other pressures) in consenting to an insufficient amount of support at the initial fixing. In my view, the burden of a domiciliary parent in obtaining an increase in child support
VICTORY, J., dissenting.
The majority's analysis of La. R.S. 9:315.1 is fatally flawed. Subsection A states the
Likewise, Subsection D is another specific law that is an exception to the general law found in Subsection A. And, in my view, Subsection D means what it says: The Court
If the majority's holding of La. R.S. 9:315.1 is correct, I fail to understand why the Legislature passed Subsection D. Since, according to the majority, the guidelines must be used in all cases, stipulated or not, and reasons for deviation from them must be used in all cases, stipulated or not, Subsection D has no meaning.
I also dissent from the majority's dicta concerning the burden of proof required to increase/decrease child support. It is dicta since, according to the majority, the "flawed judgment" must be disregarded and child support apparently will now be set using the guidelines or a deviation from them. In any event, Ms. Stogner will not have the burden of proving either a "change of circumstances" or a "substantial change of circumstances," and the discussion of the issue is unnecessary.
Further, the majority plays with words when stating the change of circumstances need not be "substantial." Yet, the majority cites Blakesley for the change to be "material," and Rousseau v. Rousseau for the change to be "sufficient to justify" the increase or decrease. We should all agree that the trial court is given much discretion in deciding if the change proven is [great, substantial, material, or sufficient] enough to warrant an increase or decrease. Yet, the mover should be required to allege facts, which if proven, would justify a change in the child support award. If all the mover has to do is to allege facts of any change in circumstances, the trial court will be obliged to hold a hearing on all such rules and even grant an increase or decrease reflecting the change, no matter how insubstantial. Clearly, the Legislature never intended such results.