Monday, February 3, 2014

Child Support Reminders

The child support paradigm change last year is producing a few questions. They are not frequent, but there are recurring themes. Addressing them in this forum is perhaps the best method to bring clarity to the marketplace. If you have been in conversations with colleagues about child support and the information process, email them a link to this (just scroll your mouse across the address bar, click your left mouse button and copy, open an email message and left click your mouse to paste).

Why are the Department of Revenue (DOR) figures often different from the clerk of court figures? The DOR maintains a database of child support arrearage. They are primarily monitoring the funds that are paid to parents or guardians by the variety of state benefit programs. These include Women Infants and Children (WIC), food stamps, and others. When such programs provide benefits to someone who should be receiving child support, the state is interested in having those benefit funds repaid in part when that child support is eventually recovered. The DOR figures may be limited to these benefit expenditures, but may also include the amounts that are reported to DOR by the Clerks.

The Clerks of Courts all use a statewide child support database. They each accumulate and compile data regarding child support cases and upload that data to the statewide database. When a clerk is asked for child support arrearage information, they will access this database, into which all Clerks have loaded their data and then they report the data that is reflected there. The data that is reflected in the database results from their various data inputs. That is, the quality of what comes out of the database is dependent upon the quality of the data that was input over time. Garbage in, garbage out as the saying goes.

When a party to one of our workers’ compensation cases asks for child support arrearage information today, the OJCC is drawing data from this same database. Any argument that parties must consult with the clerk of courts to assure the latest data is based on a false premise. The Clerks of courts have no more current data than that which the OJCC is accessing and reporting. The data available to the clerk is identical to the data available to the OJCC. They have no more current data than we have.

There is also an issue of inclusiveness. As we have entered the new paradigm, and learned of the use of this statewide database, we have seen a variety of treatments by various court clerks. When queried, this statewide database reports all amounts that are reflected as unpaid. This may include interest, service charges, and other fees that are not in the truest sense “support.” Some clerk's office around the state include all of these figures when they complete a support report. Others do not include anything except the actual support. This diversity in the Clerk's practices means that there has historically been little consistency in reporting across the broad expanse of Florida geography.

There are also out-of-state arrearages registered with the clerks, and therefore added to the database. These are sometimes not updated in the Florida database when payments are received against those arrearages in that other state. For instance, someone registers a Georgia arrearage in some Florida county, such as Duval (Jacksonville) County. The payor of the child support would make payments to the recipient or depository in Georgia, and Georgia's records should be appropriately adjusted with those payments. It is possible and even likely that the Duval County records would not be adjusted, and the out-of-state arrearage may be reflected long after it is satisfied. With out-of-state, keep in mind that a Georgia clerk, with a limited volume of hours to process paperwork, has more interest in processing and sending out arrears to spur collection than in processing and sending out proof of satisfaction of previous arrears, to correct the Florida records.

The steps are simple, request child support information from the OJCC by filing a request form. The format is on the OJCC website, www.fljcc.org, under the forms tab. The vast majority of these requests will return a "no response" meaning that there is no record of an arrearage. Of the minority which return an arrearage due, most will involve a straightforward situation which will represent a figure that is reasonably recognizable to the injured worker and you can proceed with settlement. A small minority will involve a figure that the injured worker does not recognize or protests. In those instances, you may request a more detailed report from the OJCC by filing a simple motion for more detailed child support information. This can yield you the figure elements that result in the total.

The involvement of the Circuit and County Clerk at this point in our history is limited to the situation in which the injured worker contests the amount of child support due. That is, when some adjustment to the database is appropriate. It the injured worker believes that the amount is wrong, only the Circuit Court can change that. This is because the OJCC access to the statewide database is "read" access. Our staff can access the content of the database, but we cannot change the content. Therefore, if an error is discovered, the Circuit and County Clerk is the appropriate entity to change the database to correct the error. 

That does not mean you are stuck with the outcome reflected in the database. Judges of Compensation Claims are bound to consider the child support arrears. Recently I received a call from an attorney whose client is a support recipient. Due to an error in the Clerk's office where the client lives, the public record says the recipient is instead someone who owes child support. Many documents refute this error. The claimant lacks the funds, however, to hire a marital attorney to straighten the error just to proceed with settlement. So, set that out in a motion to the JCC and attach the proof that the Clerk is in error. Whether to grant the motion, that is to approve the settlement with no child support withheld, is within the sound discretion of the assigned JCC.

You can always email me (david.langham@doah.state.fl.us) with questions or concerns, or contact askojcc@doah.state.fl.us.

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