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Minnesota split ruling creates child support law controversy

The language that is used in Minnesota statutes is carefully chosen, argued over word by word before it becomes law. Even with the scrutiny, the effect of the language isn’t always clear until a real-world dispute arises. For instance, the phrase “care and support” has recently created some controversy where child support enforcement in Minnesota is concerned.

Child support is considered a matter for family court, but this does not mean that a child support matter never crosses paths with a criminal court. A support order is a legal obligation, and failure to pay could lead to criminal sanctions. For instance, a parent could be charged with the failure to provide care and support. Arrears of $83,470 spanning 11 years left one dad facing this serious felony charge.

The father was convicted nearly three years ago of the crime mentioned above on the basis that he failed to provide his children with the financial obligation that was ordered. As was within his rights, he appealed the case to a higher court. Eventually, the case landed in the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The court ruled that the term “care and support” meant that the father could not be found guilty of the crime solely on a failure to provide financial support.

The majority opinion was written by Justice David Stras who said that “It is odd to imply…that the word ‘support’ alone refers to a monetary obligation and that the phrase ‘care and support’ means the same thing.” The court stated that evidence was lacking to determine that he failed to care for them in other ways.

It is no surprise that this ruling has created some controversy. The Supreme Court’s 4-3 split decision alone supports this debate. Writing a dissent, Justice David Lillehaug shared his belief that the ruling would “handcuff” the state, making it more difficult to prosecute individuals that choose not to pay court-ordered support.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, even asked that the Legislature make amending this section one of the most important items on their current to-do list.

Despite Justice Lillehaug’s use of the word “handcuff,” it is important for parents to remember that there are a variety of civil enforcement options that can help before a case gets to this point. These include, but are not limited to, garnishing the non-paying spouse’s wages or filling contempt of court charges. A Minneapolis family law attorney can help provide advice to parents in this type of situation.

Source: 
Star Tribune, “Court ruling hobbles prosecution for unpaid child support,” Abby Simons, Feb. 12, 2014

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