Keefer v. Keefer – 9/28/2010

October 14, 2010

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That When the Amount of SSDI Dependency Payments Exceeds the Monthly Child Support Obligation, the Excess May Satisfy the Disabled Parent’s Share of Current Unreimbursed Medical Expenses.

Father and Mother had one child together before divorcing in 2000.  Father suffered a brain injury after multiple car accidents and began receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) payments in 1996.  Following the divorce, Mother received the payments on behalf of child.  Mother was eventually awarded sole legal custody and the court ordered Father to pay child support in the amount of $575.04 per month as well as 70% of child’s medical expenses not covered by insurance.  The court found that the monthly SSDI payments to child exceeded the amount of child support owed by Father and that Mother “can, and should” use this excess amount to pay for child’s health insurance effective June 1, 2009.  In May 2009, Mother filed a petition requesting reimbursement from Father for $6,064.62 for uncovered medical expenses for child during the preceding two years.  Father didn’t dispute the amount of the expenses, but argued that Mother should have applied child’s excess SSDI benefits to Father’s portion of the unreimbursed medical expenses.  The family court ruled that although child received a surplus of $415.96 per month, this money could not be used to satisfy Father’s unreimbursed medical expenses obligations.  Father appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that unreimbursed medical expenses constitute a child support obligation.  A.R.S. § 25-500(9) defines “support” as “the provision of maintenance or subsistence” that includes “uncovered medical costs for the child.”  The Court found that this language unambiguously includes unreimbursed medical expenses as part of “support” which a parent is obligated to provide as directed by the court.  Additionally, the court relied upon Section 9 of the Guidelines which hold that to determine the “total child support obligation,” a court must allocate the percentages that each parent must pay for medical costs of the children that are not covered by insurance.  The Court found even further evidence in Guideline 9(A) which provides that “the parent responsible for payment or reimbursement must pay his or her share, as ordered by the court.”  Relying upon the guidelines and A.R.S. § 25-500(9), the Court of Appeals determined that unreimbursed medical expenses are undoubtedly a component of “total child support” and a binding obligation on parents subject to child support orders. 

The Court then noted that, while the general rule is that income received by a child cannot be used to satisfy a parent’s court-ordered support obligation, a child’s monthly dependent insurance benefit is treated differently.  Under Guideline 26, SSDI payments to a child are credited as follows:

1. If the amount of the child’s benefit for a given month is equal to or greater than the paying parent’s child support obligation, then that parent’s obligation is satisfied.

2. Any benefit received by the child for a given month in excess of the child support obligation shall not be treated as an arrearage payment nor as a credit toward future child support payments.

While the Court of Appeals recognized that Clay v. Clay, 208 Ariz. 200, 92 P.3d 426 (App. 2004) prohibits the use of SSDI dependency benefits to pay the source parent’s arrearages or to reimburse the source parent, in this matter Father was not requesting a return of overages.  The Court of Appeals held, therefore, that the excess SSDI benefit could be credited toward unreimbursed medical expenses so long as the trial court as not determined that the expenses constitute an arrearage.  

Judge Swann authored the opinion; Judges Downie and Kessler concurred