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Guthrie v. Guthrie

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

February 18, 2015


Page 840


Dover Dixon Horne PLLC, by: W. Michael Reif and Carl F. " Trey" Cooper III, for appellant.

The Brad Hendricks Law Firm, by: Caroline C. Lewis, for appellee.



Page 841


Appellant James Guthrie appeals from an order of the Pulaski County Circuit Court requiring him to pay $508 per

Page 842

month in child support for his twenty-five-year-old disabled son, J.G. He also appeals from an order awarding $4,000 in attorney's fees to J.G.'s mother, appellee Vicki Guthrie. We modify James's monthly support obligation to $477 but otherwise affirm the circuit court's orders.

I. Background

James and Vicki Guthrie were divorced in 1998, and Vicki received custody of the couple's three children. The oldest child, ten-year-old J.G., was described in the decree as having " special educational needs," for which the parties would share tutoring costs. The decree also noted that James was not " motivated to work full time" and that Vicki had earned over ninety percent of the family's income, paid the majority of household expenses, and acted as the children's primary caretaker. The court imputed income to James based on his earning ability and investments, and ordered him to pay $738 per month in child support until each child reached the age of eighteen or completed high school.[1]

In 2006, J.G. became the first child to turn eighteen and graduate from high school. He suffered from autism at that point and needed constant supervision. Vicki became his legal guardian, and he continued to live at home with her.

After the last child turned eighteen in 2011, James continued to pay the full $738 in child support until March 2012, when he filed a motion to terminate his support obligation. His motion cited the fact that all three children had reached their majority.

Vicki agreed that James should end support payments to the two youngest children. But she resisted termination of support to J.G., who was almost twenty-four years old and still living with her. Her May 2, 2012 response to James's motion stated that J.G. was " autistic and functions at the level of a five-year old child, requiring constant care and supervision at all times." She asked that James be required to " contribute to the care and maintenance of [J.G.]" and " to continue to assist" with J.G.'s care.

The court conducted hearings and received trial briefs on various issues surrounding James's request to terminate J.G.'s support. During the hearings, Vicki testified that J.G. was unable to care for himself and that she, along with paid caregivers, looked after him. She said that J.G. received a monthly Social Security payment of $710, qualified for Medicaid, and was the beneficiary of an irrevocable special-needs trust that carried a balance of $19,000.[2] She attributed well over $2,000 in monthly expenses to J.G.'s care and stated that she did not have the financial resources to continue that care without James's help.

James testified that he was financially able to support J.G. but wanted relief from the legal obligation to do so. He said that his income consisted of Social Security retirement benefits, plus dividends from approximately $450,000 in investments. He also told the court that he had owned a sailboat and been a member of a Gulf Coast yacht club; that he had lived on the sailboat, although he also owned another home; that he received $28,000 in insurance proceeds when the sailboat was destroyed in a hurricane; and that he had no debt. He agreed that J.G. was unable to

Page 843

live independently and required constant supervision, and he acknowledged that J.G. was unwelcome in his home for those reasons.

Following the hearings, the court ruled that, due to J.G.'s disability, James's support obligation did not cease when J.G. reached his majority. The court ordered James to continue his support payments to J.G. and calculated James's monthly income for support purposes as $2,107.01. The court then referenced a support-chart figure of $467 and deviated upward to $508 as the monthly support owed. The support obligation was made retroactive to May 2, 2012 (the date that Vicki responded to James's motion to terminate support), and James was directed to make the support payments to Vicki as the trustee of J.G.'s special-needs trust. In a separate order, the court awarded Vicki $4,000 in attorney's fees. James filed timely notices of appeal from both orders.

II. Automatic Termination of Child Support

James argues first that his support obligation automatically terminated when J.G. turned eighteen and graduated from high school. He cites Arkansas Code Annotated section 9-14-237 (Repl. 2009), which provides in pertinent part:

(a)(1) Unless a court order for child support specifically extends child support after these circumstances, an obligor's duty to pay child support for a child shall ...

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