“For Better Or Worse” Includes Accepting the Baggage of Your Spouse’s Obligations to a Prior Family

Suppose you married someone who owes child support from a prior marriage. The support checks to the prior family go out each month, drawn on an account containing funds earned during your marriage.  Then the second relationship sours.  Can you recover an equitable share of marital funds used by your spouse to pay a pre-existing support obligation?  The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals says you cannot.

The Husband in Pounders v Pounders used marital monies to pay child support and other expenses for the children of his previous marriage. Wife knew of the payments and wrote the checks for some of them.  In the subsequent divorce action, Wife asked the court to compensate her for the joint funds used to pay Husband’s support obligation to his prior family. The trial judge awarded Wife more than $20,000 in “restitutionary alimony.”   Husband appealed.

Wife argued to the lower court that his use of marital money to pay a separate obligation unjustly enriched Husband.  She asked the court to apply the logic used in cases by Oklahoma women who helped their husbands through medical school, only to find themselves in divorce court shortly after graduation.  The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held the cases involving professional degrees are limited to their facts.  Ms. Pounders knew her husband had ongoing obligations to his prior family when she married him. She knew the obligations would be part of her marriage to him.  Her consent during marriage prevents her from recovering when the marriage ends.

The Pounders case addresses only court-ordered obligations.  It does not address premarital debt such as student loans or credit card debt one spouse may bring into the marriage. Whether the holding of this case would extend from court-ordered obligations to general debt, or obligations not disclosed before marriage, must be decided in a future case.

by David Tracy

No To Child Support Judgment in Small Claims Court

One man’s effort to give effect to his private child support arrangement fails for lack of jurisdiction in Oklahoma’s Small Claims Court.

The father in Parsons v. Klingamon had been ordered in District Court to pay $250.00 per month in child support to the mother.  The 1996 decree did not provide for health insurance as the child was Native American and had access to free medical care.  Father claims that in 2007 he and Mother agreed to a private arrangement for him to pay her $150.00 per month in child support.  Father would also buy health insurance for the child (Mom and Dad were both unhappy with tribal health care).

In 2009, Mother asked the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) to collect the unpaid portion of court-ordered child support.  Father objected to a DHS assignment of income, claiming he was current under the private agreement.  While a DHS administrative case was pending, Father filed a small claims case against Mother.  He sought $2,500.00 “for child support payments” he claimed had been wrongfully withheld from his pay for child support.

The small claims judge granted Father a judgment.  The trial court considered this to be a dispute between two parties to a third party beneficiary contract.  The court granted judgment on a theory that Mother was being unjustly enriched by the DHS withholding.

DHS entered the case and filed a motion to vacate, citing 3 legal grounds for their claim that the small claims court could not enter the judgment it did.  The trial court declined to vacate.  On appeal, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals makes it clear that only the District Court, not the Small Claims Court, has jurisdiction over matters relating to child support.  Despite the efforts of the small claims judge to cast this case as a contract matter, it was a child support case.  The trial court had exceeded its jurisdiction.  Judgment reversed.

The appellate court noted Father still has recourse in administrative and district court.  The opinion did not pass on the merits of Father’s claims.