Can you be held in contempt of court for non-payment of child support if your only income is from workers compensation benefits?

This Court of Appeals decision was filed on May 19, 2017.  State ex rel. Bass v Gonzalez-Perez.

The father appealed an order from the Shelby County Juvenile Court finding him in contempt of court for his failure to pay child support.

The father argued before the Court of Appeals that because the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act benefits he receives are not subject to levy, execution and attachment, these benefits cannot be considered in determining whether the father was in contempt for failing to pay child support. Below is an excerpt from the Court of Appeals decision affirming the Juvenile Court judgment finding father in contempt of court.

Father is mistaken. While the benefits Father receives under the Longshore and
Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act are not subject to “levy, execution, and attachment
or other remedy for recovery or collection of a debt . . .,” nothing in the Act prevents
them from being considered as assets that Father could use to pay child support.

We note that our Supreme Court addressed a similar argument in Hobbs v. Hobbs
involving a Tennessee statute that “precludes assignment of workers’ compensation
benefits and exempts those benefits from the claims of creditors,” and the argument that
said statute conflicted with the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. Hobbs v. Hobbs, 27
S.W.3d 900, 903 (Tenn. 2000). The Hobbs Court stated:
Gross income as defined in the Child Support Guidelines includes sources
of income that the Department of Human Services has determined are
appropriate to use in arriving at an amount of child support. The definition
does not address whether those sources of income are subject to
assignment, attachment, or execution to satisfy a child support obligation.
In contrast, Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-223 precludes assignment of
workers’ compensation benefits and exempts those benefits from the claims
of creditors. “Assignment” in this context refers to the actual attachment or
divestment of the worker’s benefits and to the transfer of the right to those
benefits to another party. The clause “exempt from claims of creditors”
secures the worker’s award from attachment, levy, or garnishment by
creditors. Neither subsection (b) nor subsection (c) prohibits consideration
of workers’ compensation benefits as income [for purposes of calculating
child support].

The concepts of gross income and attachment or assignment are thus
wholly distinct.

The determination of gross income consists of a
computation that does not involve actually executing or levying upon the
workers’ compensation benefit. Computing gross income does not involve
looking beyond the terms of the guidelines themselves. Accordingly, the
guidelines and statute in question do not conflict. Mr. Hobbs’ workers’
compensation payment, whether periodic or lump sum, must be considered
in calculating his gross income under the Child Support Guidelines.

Because we are dealing with a federal statute in the case now before us and not a
Tennessee statute, the holding in Hobbs does not control the outcome of the case now
before us. The reasoning in Hobbs, however, is both sound and persuasive. Father has
pointed to nothing within the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, nor
has our research uncovered anything within the Act, that precludes the benefits that
Father receives from being considered by a Tennessee court both in calculating the
amount of child support and when making a determination of whether Father is in
contempt for non-payment of child support.

 

https://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/bassdeedraclimeropn.pdf

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