Farley v. Farley
In Farley v. Farley, 186 W.Va. 263, 412 S.E.2d 261 (1991), a father was ordered to pay $ 150.00 per month to the mother of his two children, as support for the children. After the father became disabled in 1986, he paid support sporadically and accrued arrearages, but "continued to make payments when he could." 186 W.Va. at 264, 412 S.E.2d at 262.
In Farley, the Court found that "it is easy to conclude that social security disability benefits should be viewed as credits toward a parent's child support payments," but found that the more difficult question was whether the father was entitled to credit the lump-sum check received by the mother against his child-support arrearages. 186 W.Va. at 266, 412 S.E.2d at 264.
The Court recognized the general rule that "support payments can be modified only prospectively and not retrospectively," but also recognized that the average litigant "is not the type of person who consults his lawyer on a daily basis to make sure that his life is lived in conformity with the headnotes in our latest advance sheets." Id.
The Court therefore adopted an equitable rule in Farley, holding that:
". . . when the Social Security Administration awards a lump sum payment to the caretaker of dependent children, a court may credit the amount received to any accrued arrearages, but is not required to do so. . . . We allow direct social security payments to be credited to the debtor spouse against arrearages, but it is the obligation of the debtor spouse to seek court approval for such credit and to seek a new court order concerning child support that takes into consideration, if warranted, social security's monthly payments. . . .
The great weight of authority is that social security back pay awards are credits against child support arrearages when the disabled debtor has operated in good faith and there are no other extraordinary circumstances that would militate in favor of a different result." Id.
The Court held that when a party is in arrears on his child support payments, and he receives a social security disability award, the court having jurisdiction over the child support payments, may give the party owing such payments credit on the arrearage for social security benefits payable to the children.
Specifically, the Court stated in Syllabus Point 2 of Farley v. Farley, id., that:
In the single instance of benefits paid to dependents directly by the Social Security Administration, a court may give retroactive credit when:
(1) the debtor spouse has acted in good faith and has promptly sought court approval of the credit of social security against child support;
(2) in the discretion of the trial court, there were no other assets reasonably available from which child support payments could have been paid;
(3) there were no other changes in circumstances that, in their totality, militate against awarding credit.
In the Farley case, while the Court authorized a circuit court, in its discretion, to credit a social security award against accrued, but unpaid child support payments, it did not state that a social security award in any way affected payments already made or, in any way, justified retroactive modification of accrued obligations.
To the contrary, the Court stated:
"We have been Rhadamanthine in our pronouncements that support payments can be modified only prospectively and not retrospectively. . . . Although this rule inevitably works hardship in a few cases, any alternative rule would be utterly unworkable because under such an alternative rule a person owed support who brought an action for contempt to enforce a support award would be required to justify anew the amount of the original award." (Farley v. Farley, id. at 266, 412 S.E.2d at 264.)
In sum, the appellant and the appellee were divorced in 1982 and Mr. Farley was ordered to pay $ 150 per month per child during the months he was employed.
Mr. Farley became disabled in 1986; however, he continued to pay child support when he could. On November 16, 1989, the Social Security Administration determined that Mr. Farley was totally disabled as of May 5, 1986. Mrs. Farley received a lump sum payment of $ 7,871.25 for the dependent children. Mrs. Farley also began receiving $ 411 per month in Social Security dependent's benefits for the children.
In 1990, the family law master found Mr. Farley to be $ 3,283 in arrears.
The issue before the Court was whether Mrs. Farley's check for $ 7,871.25 should be credited against Mr. Farley's child support arrearage of $ 3,283. Id. at 265, 412 S.E.2d at 263.
The Court concluded that Mr. Farley should have received credit for the lump sum payment, dating back to the date of disability, of dependent's benefits his children received from the Social Security Administration, based upon the following holdings:
Social security is similar to a private insurance contract and benefits paid to dependents directly are presumptively credits against the insured's support obligation; however, to receive credit a debtor spouse must immediately make a motion before the circuit court to have such benefits credited against arrears and to have a new court order governing future payments that take social security benefits into account.