The Georgia Supreme Court recently heard a case where a trial court tried to make a ruling on a potential future modification. In that child custody and child support modification case, the Wife was awarded custody of the children and child support. Singh v. Hammond, S12A1576 (2013). As part of its order, the trial court ruled that. “[a]s long as [Wife] receives child support payments from [Husband], she shall not apply for any financial assistance for the children from the government.” The Wife appealed, alleging that the trial court erred in prohibiting her from applying for governmental financial assistance for the children so long as she received child support.
The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the Wife. The Court referred to the child support statute under which “the proper level of child support is calculated based on the best interests of the children and the parties’ present gross incomes at the time that the award is set.” Id. A party may petition the court for a modification of this child support amount “if there is a substantial change in either party’s financial circumstances or the needs of the children at some point in the future.” Id. See OCGA §§19-6-15(b), (i), and (k). In this case, the Court held, the prohibition against government assistance for the children has nothing to do the parties’ present financial circumstances but, rather, “it reflects the trial court’s attempt to make a pre-determined finding about an alleged future change in the financial circumstances of the parties that would justify a modification of child support.” Id. A trial court is unauthorized to make such a finding because it “eliminates the statutory requirement that a trial court receive actual evidence of a ‘substantial change’ in either party’s financial circumstances before making a modification determination.” Id. Further, the Court held that it eliminates the court’s responsibility to look out for the best interests of the children in considering any child support modification.
Child support cannot be modified based upon some event that may happen in the future. An initial child support finding is made based upon the financial circumstances of the parties’ as they exist at that time. Only if those circumstances substantially change and a modification is in the best interests of the children – as determined at the time of the modification action – can a court modify child support.