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IN ARIZONA CHILD SUPPORT CASES MONEY DOES GROW ON TREES

by David I. Sheffield, Esq.

Calculating child support in an Arizona family law case is a deceptively simple task because in theory, the answer resides in the child support guidelines. In practice, of course, parties sometimes try to muddy the waters.

Consider an Arizona Family Law case from 2012: McCollum v. Easley, 1 CA-CV 11-0342 (Ariz.App.Div. 1, 2012). Douglas McCollum and Evonne Easley had two minor children in common and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle during their marriage. When asked to account for his earnings, though, Mr. McCollum informed the court that he was earning $0 per month. He claimed he was a palm tree farmer and it would take years before any of his trees would be large enough to sell. On the other hand, Ms. Easley pointed out that his standard of living after their separation was no less than when they had been together and claimed he was making $7,000 per month: much more than during the marriage.

The family court judge had doubts on both sides, and so Mr. McCollum was ordered to turn over his last 3 years of tax returns. The returns showed incomes of $700 in 2007, $3,000 in 2008, and $3,800 in 2009. No explanation or additional documentation was provided, and faced with the need to make a decision and no reliable evidence with which to make it, the court took a wild guess: $3,333.

Mr. McCollum took exception at being attributed so much income without any evidence, so he filed an appeal. Most appeals are unsuccessful, but in this case, Mr. McCollum must have liked his chances. After all, the trial court had not explained its conclusion with any evidence. Nevertheless, the Appeals Court ruled--unanimously--that the trial court had acted appropriately.

It's impossible to say for certain what would have happened if Mr. McCollum had been more forthcoming with the trial court about his financial situation, but what is certain is that by refusing to do so, he left the court with no choice but to guess at his income and the guess the family court made was higher than Mr. McCollum was hoping for. The central lesson in this case is that if you don't provide the court with the information it needs to make an accurate judgment, you may well be stuck with the court's inaccurate judgment. Put another way: the best way to make sure you are giving the court the information it needs to judge your case fairly is to get help from a qualified Arizona family law attorney.

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