Court Discretion to Add Recurring Gifts as Income for Child Support
The Arizona Court of Appeals in the unpublished decision of Hatch v. Hilaire considered Jesse Hilaire’s (Father) appeal from the trial court’s rulings regarding spousal maintenance, child support, and the trial court’s equitable distribution of their marital assets. The father and Jami Germaine Hatch (Mother) were married in 2009 and had two minor children. Throughout the marriage, Father was employed and Mother was a stay at home parent taking care of the parties’ children.
The couple separated in September of 2012 and the mother filed for dissolution of the parties’ marriage in September 2013 requesting child support, spousal maintenance and attorney’s fees. Temporary orders were issued requiring the father to pay family support of $1,000 per month commencing January 1, 2014. Father failed to fully comply with that family support order. It was found by the trial court that the father paid a total of $1,500.00 in support between January and May 2014 with no evidence of additional payments made between May 2014 and the date set for the final trial of the case.
The dissolution decree was issued on December 17, 2014 in which the trial court ordered the father to pay the mother $271.87 per month in child support, $400.00 per month for eighteen months for spousal maintenance, and family support arrearages for the time period between October 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014 totaling $12,495.25. During the trial, the father requested the mother reimburse him for the marital vehicle claiming that his name was wrongfully removed from the title after the mother moved out. The Court found that these claims were unsubstantiated and not supported by the evidence presented at trial. The court concluded the items of personal property acquired during the parties’ marriage had previously been divided between the parties. The trial court granted the mother’s request for attorney’s fees and costs based upon the trial court finding there to be a substantial disparity in financial resources between the two parties. The father appealed those rulings.
Hatch v. Hilaire Appeal
On appeal, the father argued the trial court erred when it failed to order an equitable distribution of the family vehicle as a marital asset. The father did not present any evidence establishing the marital vehicle was still in the mother’s possession or that the vehicle’s title was in either the mother’s or the father’s names. Since the evidence presented during the trial was insufficient to establish ownership of the vehicle by either party, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled the Court did not abuse its discretion in failing to divide that alleged community asset.
The father also argued the Court erred in how it calculated the mother’s gross income when calculating child support. The trial court attributed minimum wage income to the mother while the father claims the trial court should have included monetary “gifts”, free housing, use of vehicles, plastic surgery, and other gifts from the mother’s family as income to her. He argued the gifts were recurring and substantial and resulted in a significant decrease in the mother’s expenses. While the Arizona Child Support Guidelines’ definition of “gross income” allows for a trial court to include such regularly and recurring gifts as income, a trial court is not required to do so and the court may exercise its discretion to include, or not include, such gifts in the income of a parent when calculating child support.
In this case, the trial court used its discretion to find that the mother was capable of earning minimum wage and that making ends meet necessitated assistance from her family. While the mother admitted that she had done “housework” and chores for her parents for cash, it was temporary and she was no longer working for them at the time of the trial of the case. The father had no additional information to submit as evidence that the mother could earn more than minimum wage. Her last date of employment outside the home was when she was 19 years old. The trial court concluded her income was unknown, but that she had the potential to earn minimum wage.
The trial court has the discretion to grant spousal maintenance when any one of four factors are present: 1) the spouse seeking maintenance lacks sufficient property to provide for his or her reasonable needs, 2) is unable to be self sufficient through appropriate employment or has a child of an age or condition that would necessitate not seeking employment outside the home or lacks earning ability, 3) contributed to the educational opportunities of the other spouse, or 4) was in a long marriage and is of an age that could minimize abilities to obtain employment that would allow him or her to be self sufficient.
The trial court found the mother to meet two of the four factors; specifically, she lacked sufficient property and inability to be self sufficient through appropriate employment. The Arizona Court of Appeals of Arizona concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in this case because A.R.S. Section 25-319(A) supported the trial court’s findings. In response to the father’s specific argument that the trial court made an error in its calcluation of the income of the parents, the Arizona Court of Appeals concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The father did not present any additional findings or evidence regarding the mother’s income to refute the court’s attribution of income to the mother.
The inclusion of the father’s medical benefits, overtime and other benefits from employment, as well as allowing the letter from the father’s employer (Mother’s uncle) to be included as evidence of earnings, was consistent with state law and the Arizona Court of Appeals found no abuse of of the trial judge’s exercise of his discretion. The father claims he paid $1,200 between October 2013 and January 2014, $4,000 between January 2014 and the date of the trial and $1,000 from the joint tax return. Yet no evidence provided supported these claims. The father only provided evidence of payments totaling $740.00 between October and December 2013, and $1,500.00 between January and May 2014. No evidence of additional payments to the mother was provided.
The Arizona Court of Appeals found no error in the trial court’s calculation of arrearages as the father did not provide any evidence of the additional payments he claims he made. The Arizona Court of Appeals, therefore, affirmed the findings and orders of the trial court.