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Teele v. West-Harper

Supreme Court of Maine

September 19, 2017


          Argued: May 12, 2017

          Jonathan C. Hull, Esq. (orally), Damariscotta, for appellant.

          Eric A. Teele William M. Avantaggio, Esq. (orally), Damariscotta, for appellee Lisa West-Harper.


          HJELM, J.

         [¶1] Eric A. Teele appeals from a judgment in which the District Court (Wiscasset, Mathews, J.) granted his motion to modify his child support obligation to his former wife, Lisa West-Harper, but denied his request to be reimbursed for support he had paid during a period when he was disabled, even though as a result of his disability the parties' two minor children received a retroactive lump-sum dependent benefit from the Social Security Administration covering the same period when he had made payments. Teele argues that the court erred by concluding, based on 19-AM.R.S. § 2107 (2016), that it lacked authority to apply a "credit" for the retroactive dependent benefits against child support he had paid while the original child support order was in effect. He argues alternatively that the court erred by making the amended child support order retroactive only to the date he served his motion to modify on West-Harper, see 19-A M.R.S. § 2009(2) (2016), so that it did not give him credit for the retroactive lump-sum dependent benefit. Finding no error in the court's interpretation and application of sections 2107 and 2009(2), we affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following facts are not in dispute. The parties were divorced by a judgment issued in March 2008. As part of the divorce judgment, West-Harper was granted primary residence of the parties' two minor children and Teele was ordered to pay child support.

         [¶3] In approximately September 2014, Teele filed a petition for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Teele continued to make child support payments while his petition for disability benefits was pending, and he was current on his support obligation in March 2016 when the SSA notified him that his petition had been granted. As a result of Teele's disability benefit determination, the SSA sent West-Harper notices stating that each child would receive a payment of $6, 190 as retroactive dependent benefits for the period of October 2014-the date the SSA had determined Teele's entitlement began-through February 2016. The notices further informed West-Harper that beginning in March 2016, each child would receive monthly dependent benefits. See 42 U.S.C.S. § 4O2(d)(1)-(2) (LEXIS through Pub. L. No. 115-51) (providing that every dependent child of an individual who is entitled to disability insurance benefits is entitled to a monthly "child's insurance benefit"). During the period covered by the lump-sum back payment of benefits to each child, West-Harper therefore received both child support from Teele and dependent benefits for the children.

         [¶4] In May 2016, Teele filed a motion to modify the 2008 child support order.[1] See 19-A M.R.S. § 2009(1) (2016); M.R. Civ. P. 120. In that motion as later amended, Teele asserted that his child support obligation should be modified because both parties' incomes had changed since the divorce judgment was issued and because West-Harper had received an "overpayment" of child support for the period covered by the retroactive dependent benefits from the SSA. West-Harper ultimately contested only Teele's request for a modification or adjustment based on the alleged overpayment of child support.

         [¶5] At a hearing held in October 2016, where the parties presented evidence consistent with the facts described above, the parties agreed with the court that because of discrepancies among various records, the evidence would not allow the court to properly determine the specific amount of child support that Teele argued he had overpaid as a result of the children's receipt of retroactive dependent benefits. They further agreed that, before that issue should be addressed further, the court should make the threshold legal determination of whether it had the authority to order West-Harper to reimburse Teele for those alleged overpayments pursuant to 19-A M.R.S. § 2107, which provides a "credit" to a disabled obligor parent "for the dependent benefits paid to the child" because of the obligor's disability.[2]

         [¶6] The following month, after the parties had filed post-hearing briefs on the effect of section 2107, the court issued an order on Teele's motion to modify. Based on the parties' agreement, the court issued an amended child support order reducing Teele's child support obligation to account for changes in the parties' incomes. In the amended child support order, the court also found that the children received dependent benefits as a result of Teele's disability and that "[i]n any month that the benefits ... meet or exceed the total monthly support obligation, [Teele] shall receive a credit for the total amount of support due."

         [¶7] Based on 19-A M.R.S. § 2009(2), however, the court determined that the revised support obligation, including the credit for dependent benefits, would relate back only to May 2016, when Teele served his motion to modify on West-Harper. The court concluded that it lacked statutory authority to grant Teele a "credit"[3] against payments he had made before May 2016 based on the lump-sum dependent benefits paid to the children, because section 2107 provides that a credit for dependent benefits "applies [only] to the extent it is identified" in a child support order, and the 2008 order "did not check the applicable box which references the Social Security offset." The court also noted that if it were to order West-Harper to reimburse Teele as he requested, she would be "divest[ed] of... funds that will not be available to the home in which the children primarily reside, " with "no warning when she accepted the child support payments that she would [someday] have to repay them." Accordingly, the court denied Teele's request for a credit in the amount of the lump-sum payment of retroactive dependent benefits to the children.

         [¶8] After the court denied his motion to reconsider, Teele timely appealed. See 14 M.R.S. ยง ...

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