Dad Must Pay Even Though He Believed Baby Was Dead?

A trial court in Tennessee ordered a father to pay retroactive child support for the time period that he believed the child was dead after being misled by the mother. The father lived in Louisiana and came to visit a few weeks after the child was born. First the mother lied and told him the baby was not his. She later called him and told him that the infant died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. When the child was three years old a Georgia court found the child to be deprived and put her into the custody of her maternal grandmother who lived in Tennessee. In 2004, the eleven year old child expressed a desire to meet her father and her grandmother was able to locate him. A Louisiana court entered a paternity judgment and he was ordered to pay child support. He began visiting the child and petitioned to be named primary residential parent. He was awarded custody but ordered to pay retroactive child support to the grandmother for the time that the child was in her care and the father believed the child was dead.

State guidelines provide a presumption that support will be awarded retroactively to the date of the child’s birth except in cases where it would be inequitable. The statute includes as a factor for consideration the extent to which the father could have known of or the mother concealed the child’s existence. The trial court concluded the exception applied only in cases where the father did not know of the child’s existence and in this case the father knew of the child’s existence since he visited the baby a few weeks after her birth. The father appealed and the judgment regarding the retroactive support was reversed. The appeals court decided it would be inequitable to order him to pay support when the conduct of the mother prevented him from taking responsibility for her.

Was the trial court adhering to a policy of strict statutory interpretation or is there more to it? Are courts and judges so quick to demand support payments from fathers without consideration to specific circumstances? This is a case of a man who wanted to care for his child but was deceived. Did the trial court not even consider that his resources may be better used to care for the child now that she is in his custody instead of ordering him to pay for her support for a time period over a decade ago during which he believed she was dead? Do the deadbeat dads of the world give all noncustodial dads a bad name and as a result, are courts overly eager to make retribution?

Burnine v. Dauterive, Tenn. Ct. App., No. 2010-02611-COA-R3-JV, 7/27/11