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2004-UP-540 - S.C. Department of Social Services v. Martin

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS
PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals


S.C. Department of Social Services, County of Siskiyou, and Debra J. Little, Plaintiffs, 

Of Whom, S.C. Department of Social Services is, Appellant,

v.

Michael D. Martin, Respondent.


Appeal From Greenwood County
 Billy A. Tunstall, Jr., Family Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-540  
Submitted October 1, 2004 – Filed October 25, 2004


REVERSED AND REMANDED


Holly C. Walker, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Billy J. Garrett, Jr., C. Rauch Wise, both of Greenwood, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  In April 2003 the family court issued a civil contempt order against Michael Martin for failure to pay child support under a November 18, 1986 California support order.  Martin filed a motion for emergency temporary relief, claiming that an order issued in South Carolina on May 8, 1990 modified the California order.  Upon reconsideration, the judge vacated his 2003 order after determining the 1990 order terminated Martin’s obligations under the California order. We reverse and remand. [1]  

FACTS

Debra Little and Michael Martin’s marriage, which began in 1978, produced two children, Trenton and Lisa.  After a period of separation, the couple divorced in 1986 in Siskiyou County, California.  The court granted custody of Lisa to Little and custody of Trenton to Martin.  On November 18, 1986, the Siskiyou County Family Support Division ordered Martin to pay $303 per month in child support for Lisa.

On February 27, 1989, the Siskiyou County District Attorney sent a request to the South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS) to enforce the November 18, 1986 order pursuant to the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act [2] (URESA).  Siskiyou County and Little also sought $11,831.00 for medical coverage and arrearage of past due support payments.  SCDSS served Martin with the URESA request, which he answered on April 5, 1990. 

Prior to a hearing on April 25, 1990, the county and Little entered into an agreement with Martin to reduce Martin’s child support payments. The agreement was then incorporated into an order issued on May 8, 1990.  Per the order, Martin was to pay $30.00 per week in child support and $10.00 per week toward the arrearage, which was to be determined within 30 days of the date of the order.  The parties did not appeal the order nor did the court determine the arrearage.

At some point after May 8, 1990, the Greenwood County Clerk of Court issued two rules to show cause for failure to pay child support.  As a result, on April 23, 2003, nearly thirteen years later, Martin appeared pro se to defend SCDSS’s allegations that he was in willful contempt of California’s 1986 child support order.  During the hearing, the SCDSS attorney failed to bring the May 8, 1990 South Carolina order to the court’s attention.  As a result, the judge issued an order enforcing the November 18, 1986 California order. 

Martin filed a motion for emergency temporary relief and a hearing was held on June 25, 2003.  On October 17, 2003, the judge issued an order vacating his previous order and enforcing the May 8, 1990 order, stating that the court would not have issued the April 23, 2003 order had it known about the May 8, 1990 order. [3]   The order also stated that the May 8, 1990 order was the “final order in this matter determining [Martin’s] child support obligations, and [the May 8, 1990] final order ended [Martin’s] prospective California child support obligations.”  This appeal followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

On appeal from a family court order, the appellate court has jurisdiction to find facts in accordance with their own view of the preponderance of the evidence.  Roberson v. Roberson, 359 S.C. 384, 388, 597 S.E.2d 840, 842 (Ct. App. 2004).  The appellate court should not, however, disregard the findings of the trial judge who observed the witness and was better able to assess their credibility.  Patel v. Patel, 359 S.C. 515, 523, 599 S.E.2d 114, 119 (2004).  Cases involving child support are ordinarily left to the discretion of the family court and will only be disturbed on appeal upon a showing of abuse of discretion.  Townsend v. Townsend, 356 S.C. 70, 73, 587 S.E.2d 118, 119 (Ct. App. 2003).  Abuse of discretion arises when the court is controlled by an error of law or the order lacks evidentiary support.  Id.

LAW/ANALYSIS

SCDSS argues that the trial court erred in finding the May 8, 1990 South Carolina support order was final and terminated Martin’s prospective California child support obligations.  We agree.  

The parties agree that the applicable law governing this case is URESA, formerly found in sections 20-7-960 to 1170 of South Carolina Code (1985). [4]   Section 20-7-933 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2003) grants the family court authority to enforce orders regarding child support, including cases in which the family court has jurisdiction based on URESA.  Section 20-7-933 also provides that the family court has “the right to modify any such decree, judgment, or order for child support as the court considers necessary upon a showing of changed circumstances.”  S.C. Code Ann. § 20-7-933 (Supp. 2003).  Therefore, the South Carolina family court had authority to enforce and modify the 1986 California support order when SCDSS sought to enforce the California order on behalf of Siskiyou County and Little. 

Section 20-7-1110, however, provides that “[a] support order made by a court of this State . . . does not nullify and is not nullified by a support order made by a court of this State pursuant to any other law or by a support order made by a court of any other state . . . unless otherwise specifically provided by the court.”  S.C. Code Ann. § 20-7-1110 (1985).  “Section 20-7-1110 clearly provides that a support order made by a court of this State is not nullified by a support order made by a court of another state unless specifically provided by the court.”  South Carolina Dep’t of Social Services v. Hamlett, 330 S.C. 321, 325, 498 S.E.2d 888, 890 (Ct. App. 1998).  Thus, in Hamlett, we held that a South Carolina child support order continued as an “independently enforceable order regardless of its registration and modification in a foreign state unless specifically nullified by the court pursuant to section 20-7-1110.”  Id. at 326, 498 S.E.2d at 890-91.

More recently, in SCDSS/Child Support Enforcement v. Carswell, 359 S.C. 424, 597 S.E.2d 859 (Ct. App. 2004), SCDSS sought registration and enforcement of a Washington child support order in South Carolina under URESA. [5]   In Carswell, as in this case, the parties had entered into an agreement to reduce the amount the obligor was required to pay, which was then incorporated into one of three South Carolina family court orders.  Id. at 427, 597 S.E.2d at 860. Upon examination of the original order and the subsequent South Carolina orders, we held that because the subsequent South Carolina orders merely recognized the Washington order, the orders did not “rise to the level of a nullification of the Washington order.”  Id. at 430, 597 S.E.2d at 861.  Therefore, the original Washington order remained valid and independently enforceable in South Carolina.  Id.

In this case, the May 8, 1990 order does not provide any indication that it was intended to nullify the California order.  The 1990 order does not specifically mention the 1986 order, nor does it specify it was intended to nullify the 1986 order.  Therefore, the May 8, 1990 order did not nullify the 1986 California order and the California order remains independently enforceable in South Carolina.

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

STILWELL, BEATTY, and SHORT, JJ., concur.


[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.

[2] Formerly found in S.C. Code Ann. §§ 20-7-960 to 1170 (1985); Act No. 356, 1984 S.C. Acts 1640.     

[3] The court took judicial notice in its October 17, 2003 order that Martin’s daughter, Lisa, turned 18 years old on February 17, 1997 and she was the only child Martin was ordered to support prospectively from May 8, 1990.  Therefore, Martin’s prospective South Carolina child support ended on February 17, 1997.

[4] On July 1, 1994, the South Carolina Legislature enacted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), which replaced URESA.  S.C. Code Ann. §§ 20-7-960 to 1220 (Supp. 2003); Act No. 494, 1994 S.C. Acts 5103.  This court has interpreted UIFSA to require application of URESA to support actions arising before July 1, 1994, the effective date of UIFSA.  Deltoro v. McMullen, 322 S.C. 328, 471 S.E.2d 742 (Ct. App. 1996).  The initial support obligation in this action arose in 1986, which was prior to UIFSA’s July 1, 1994 effective date.  Therefore, URESA, not UIFSA, is the controlling law in this action.

[5] We note that the trial judge did not have the benefit of the Carswell opinion when he issued the October 17, 2003 order because it had not yet been decided.