Child Support, Texas Law, and Clifford Hall

“Father Sentenced to Six-Months of Jail for Paying Too Much Child Support”

This was the attention grabbing headline chosen for one of the latest emotion baiting articles circulating around social media regarding the Clifford Hall case in Texas.  Immediately upon seeing the title, I knew something was not right and there had to be more to the story.  After conducting some research, I discovered that this case was heard by our local Harris County Family Court Judge Lisa Millard.  As I read the outcry on social media from the masses who did not understand how such an “injustice” could take place, the lawyer part of me thought it would be a great time to share

Texas Family Law Lessons Learned from the Clifford Hall Case

1.)   Contempt of Court Is Contempt of Court. 

According to court records, Mr. Clifford Hall found himself in court because he was behind on his child support payments.  The Texas Family Code maintains that the judge has the discretion to send a person to jail for non-payment of child support.  Mr. Hall did not go to jail for “overpaying” child support.  He went to jail because he had not made timely payments.  That is why he was at a contempt hearing.  Furthermore, even if the payor subsequently pays the back support, he or she may still be sent to jail.  Plus, if he or she has a history of not timely paying support, the likelihood of the judge sending him or her to jail at a contempt hearing increases.  Do we know if Mr. Hall was a repeat offender?  I am not sure.  The stories I have read do not directly answer this question.  If one does not like the Texas Family Code or its application, she should make her feelings known and elect officials that hold her same values so that the law can be changed.  As it stands, this is a black and white issue according to current child support law in Texas.

2.)   Timely Payments Are in the Child’s Best Interest.

Texas has something called “the Best Interest of the Child” doctrine.  Most Texas judges agree that the “best interest of the child” is for child support to be paid as ordered and not as the payor feels like making the payments.  A child does not eat irregularly, so why would one think child support could be paid irregularly?  I have not heard this claim made by Mr. Hall, but it is a problem that I have seen arises often in contempt cases.  If payment cannot be made, or you need a modification, go through the proper channels to make the request.

Judges Do Not Punish Parents for Spending Time with Their Kids…

3.)   Stay Informed of Your Court Case. 

Mr. Hall claims that he did not know that a prior Suit Affecting the Parent Child Relationship- the order that caused the contempt hearing- had been modified to change his visitation and child support.  At what point was this order modified?  Was it before or after the Motion for Contempt and Enforcement against Mr. Hall was filed in April of 2013.  At some point over the past eight months, he should have received notice regarding the contempt motion and inquired as to the status of his case.  Was he not served the Motion for Contempt as required by Texas law?  Thus far, there have been no statements presented that Mr. Hall was unaware of this motion.

4.)   Request Your Own Account Statement. 

Mr. Hall claimed that at some earlier hearing- name and date unknown- he was told that he was current on his child support payments.  First, what hearing was this?  Was it in front of Judge Millard?  Was it a hearing with just the child’s mother, her attorney, and the Office of the Attorney General?  What was the purpose and what exactly transpired in this “hearing?” Second, the responsibility is on both parties to get their own account statement.  Parties to a lawsuit should not rely on the attorney on the other side- or the child support official- to provide accurate records.  If the payor is not able to obtain the files, which is highly unlikely, she should solicit the information from her employer if payments are withheld from her pay check.  If payments are not withheld, the payor should maintain a personal record of payments.

5.)   Judges Do Not Punish Parents for Spending Time with Their Kids.

One of the statements made by Mr. Hall was that he was being punished after the order was modified because he spent too much time with his son.  In my entire history as a family lawyer, I have not met one judge who found someone in contempt because the parties agreed for the non-custodial parent to have more time with the child.  Every judge I have encountered not only encouraged parents to work out their own support and visitation agreement, some of them demanded it by requiring the parties go to mediation before they could be seen by the judge.

Although the media did a great job in addressing a straightforward legal matter in a way that incited the public, it says more about the individual parents than the court system that this matter got this far.  The court’s ruling comes as no shock.  The parents could have- and should have- prevented the whole sordid ordeal by at least trying to make a private agreement.

To read more from Miriam Nicole Huffman, Esquire, please visit our blog.

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