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Walden v. Jackson

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

November 30, 2016

BRITTANY WALDEN, APPELLANT
v.
JACOB EDWARD JACKSON, APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 49-DR-15-4] HONORABLE JERRY RYAN, JUDGE

         REVERSED AND REMANDED

          Robin Smith Law Firm, P.A., by: Robin C. Smith; and Walas Law Firm, PLLC, by: Breean Walas, for appellant.

          No response.

          LARRY D. VAUGHT, JUDGE

         Brittany Walden appeals the Montgomery County Circuit Court's July 8, 2015 order finding that Jacob Jackson is the father of her son H.R.W., changing the child's last name to Jackson, establishing visitation for Jackson, ordering Jackson to pay future child support, and declining Walden's request for retroactive child support. Walden argues that the current appeal was rendered moot by the circuit court's subsequent modification of the order from which this appeal was taken. Because we held that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to modify the order and therefore reversed and dismissed Walden's companion appeal, Walden v. Jackson, 2016 Ark.App. 578, we hold that the current appeal is not moot. We therefore address the merits of Walden's appeal of the circuit court's July 8, 2015 order.[1]

         Brittany Walden gave birth to H.R.W. on November 11, 2014. The following January, Jacob Jackson filed suit to establish paternity, change the child's birth certificate to reflect that he is the father, and to change the child's last name from Walden to Jackson. Walden requested that, if Jackson was found to be the father, he be ordered to pay retroactive and future child support. Jackson was then conclusively determined to be H.R.W.'s father through DNA testing.

         At a hearing on the matter, Jackson agreed to pay child support. Jackson testified that he had wanted to see H.R.W. since birth, but that, although Walden had repeatedly offered to let him come over and visit the child, he never did. The court ruled from the bench that the child's last name would be changed because Jackson was proved to be the father, the child was still very young, Jackson was planning to be involved in the child's life, and "that's only right." The court awarded Walden sole custody and ordered Jackson to pay future child support but denied Walden's request for retroactive child support because Jackson had not had any contact with the child. The court issued a written order on July 8, 2015. It stated that the child's name should be changed. It also stated that the court declined to award retroactive child support because "Jackson was not able to have visitation with the child pending this hearing." Walden filed a timely notice of appeal.

         Walden argues that the circuit court's July 8 order was clearly erroneous in two regards: (1) it failed to determine, after consideration of the factors required pursuant to Huffman v. Fisher, 337 Ark. 58, 987 S.W.2d 269 (1999) (Huffman I), that it was in H.R.W.'s best interest to change his name, and (2) it failed to award retroactive child support. We have previously held that "[w]here a full inquiry is made by the circuit court of the factors set out [in Huffman I] and a determination is made with due regard to the best interest of the child, the circuit court's decision will be upheld so long as it is not clearly erroneous." Poindexter v. Poindexter, 360 Ark. 538, 541, 203 S.W.3d 84, 87 (2005) (citing Huffman I, 337 Ark. at 69, 987 S.W.2d at 274). However, where the circuit court has failed to consider whether the name change is in the child's best interest pursuant to the Huffman I factors, we must reverse. See id.

         Our standard of review for an appeal from a child-support order is de novo on the record, and we will not reverse a finding of fact by the circuit court unless it is clearly erroneous. Ward v. Doss, 361 Ark. 153, 158, 205 S.W.3d 767, 770 (2005) (citing McWhorter v. McWhorter, 346 Ark. 475, 58 S.W.3d 840 (2001)). In reviewing a circuit court's findings, we give due deference to that court's superior position to determine the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be accorded to their testimony. Id. at 158, 205 S.W.3d at 770. As a rule, when the amount of child support is at issue, we will not reverse the chancellor absent an abuse of discretion. Id., 205 S.W.3d at 770. However, a circuit court's conclusion of law is given no deference on appeal. Id., 205 S.W.3d at 770.

         In Huffman I, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that the party who petitions for the change of a child's name has the burden to demonstrate that such change is in the child's best interest, and the court must consider the following factors in determining best interest:

(1) The child's preference;
(2) The effect of the change of the child's surname on the preservation and development of the child's ...

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