With information from the Supreme Court of Georgia-A man who lost his farm is appealing an Early County court ruling, arguing that the amount of child support he's been ordered to pay is based on an inaccurate calculation of his monthly income.
The income the court attributed to Stephen consisted of $2,166.67 in gross monthly income he earned from working on his father's farm after he lost his own farm, plus additional amounts the trial court concluded were “fringe benefits” that Stephen received through his employment with his employer father.
Under Georgia statutory law, in addition to considering a person's gross income, fringe benefits received in the course of employment “shall be counted as income if the benefits significantly reduce personal living expenses.” The statute goes on to say that, “Such fringe benefits might include, but are not limited to, use of a company car, housing, or room and board.” In Stephen's case, the court ruled that he received fringe benefits that included monthly payments of $1,177 for the use of his truck, $400 for gasoline, $30.32 for ad valorem tax and registration for the truck, housing valued at $1,000 per month, $350 for utilities, and $75 for a cellular phone.
Stephen now appeals to the state Supreme Court.
ARGUMENTS: Stephen's attorneys argue the trial court erred in its conclusion that he received fringe benefits which contributed to his gross monthly income that served as the basis for calculating child support. The trial court failed to follow the child support guidelines and “has worked an injustice in ordering a young man, this father, to pay child support he is unable to pay by miscalculating his income,” the attorneys argue in briefs.
Since graduating from college in 2007, Stephen has known only one occupation: farming. He tried owning his own farm, which is now heavily in debt. Today he works on his parents' farm and earns $2,166.67 a month. While it is a good wage, Stephen struggles to make ends meet. The trial court erred in finding that assistance from his parents constituted fringe benefits of his employment. There was no evidence that the house Stephen lived in since 2012 was a fringe benefit. “In fact, the evidence was to the contrary,” the attorneys argue. His parents bought the house in the summer of 2012 to be a marital home for Stephen, Amanda and their children. After she filed for divorce, they allowed him to continue living there to maintain their investment. The house was therefore never a fringe benefit of his employment and cannot be counted in his gross income as additional income.
Like the house, his utilities “are not a fringe benefit of employment, cannot be imputed as income to him, and do not constitute a gift,” the attorneys argue, nor is the 2011 F-250 truck he purchased to use for farming before he began working for his father, or the monthly gas and repair payments. “Husband's parents assisted their son with the fees associated with the use of the truck for the farm because he is their son, not because he is an employee,” his attorneys argue. To the extent that his cell phone is a fringe benefit, it's minimal and does not significantly reduce his living expenses.
In the final judgment, the trial court used the concept of fringe benefits erroneously to award Amanda the same child support amount it had awarded her in the earlier temporary order, despite a lack of evidence to support the amount. “While the trial court has great discretion in determining income for child support purposes, one thing a trial court cannot do is decide to award a certain amount of child support and then fashion the numbers on the Child Worksheet to achieve that goal,” the attorneys argue.
In the Temporary Order, the trial court made clear that the $4,879.17 in income it attributed to Stephen reflected his monthly “draw” from his farm loan when he was still self-employed and trying to make a go of his own farm. The court included that amount of money as income, even though Stephen's accountant testified that such draws did not constitute income but rather debt. The improperly imposed temporary child support award of $1,175 should itself be reversed, the attorneys contend.
By the time of the final hearing, Stephen had lost his farm and was working for his father. “The trial court's determination to increase Wife's child support regardless of Husband's income or ability to pay was unmistakable,” the attorneys contend. Given that the trial court ordered Stephen to pay the healthcare premiums for the children and given that he is already paying for a private school education for the children (with his parents' assistance as an advance against his inheritance from them), based on the parties' incomes, he should be paying $500 monthly in child support. The case should be remanded with direction that the trial court follow the law and abide by the child support guidelines.
Amanda's attorney argues that each benefit received by Stephen was properly found by the trial court to be a “fringe benefit” as contemplated by Georgia Code §19-6-15(f)(1)(C). The trial court, for instance, correctly found that his employer father's monthly payment of $350 to cover Stephen's power bill, not the bill for “utilities,” was a fringe benefit. While Stephen listed on his Domestic Relations Financial Affidavit a monthly expense of $350 for electricity, that affidavit was “false as this expense was not an expense actually being incurred by [Stephen].” Also, the trial court's finding that his use of a 2011 truck “is a fringe benefit of his employment was proper, firmly grounded in evidence, and within the trial court's sound discretion.” At the final hearing, his own attorney, accountant and Stephen himself revealed that the truck now belonged to his father who would be assuming the debt on the truck.
His contention that the truck and the costs associated with its use were provided to him because he is the son, and not an employee of his father “is directly contradictory” to the testimony of Stephen, his attorney and his accountant, Amanda's attorney argues. “The trial court acted within its sound discretion in calculating the Father's income for purposes of the child support calculation,” the attorney argues. “It cannot be shown that the trial court's decision as to ‘fringe benefits' and the Father's gross monthly income were clearly erroneous,” and Stephen's contention that the trial court miscalculated his income “is without merit.”
Attorneys for Appellant (Stephen): Bree Sullivan, H. William Sams, Jr., Jeanney Kutner
Attorney for Appellee (Amanda): B. Wheat Kirbo, III
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