Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Whether Courts Can Award Child Support From Custodial to Non-Custodial Parents

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Our previews of the newly allowed petitions for leave to appeal from the closing days of the November term continue with In re Marriage of Turk, which poses a potentially ground-breaking question of domestic relations law: can a court order a custodial parent to pay child support to the non-custodial parent?

The mother in Turk filed for divorce in 2004. Not long after, she filed petitions for maintenance and child support, together with financial data and estimated “children’s expenses.” In mid-2005, the trial court entered judgment of dissolution, incorporating the parties’ settlement and joint parenting agreement. Pursuant to the agreement, the father agreed to pay maintenance and support for 42 months. At the end of that period, any further child support would be calculated pursuant to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act. The court further ordered that the father would be responsible for providing medical insurance for the children, with the parents jointly sharing any non-covered medical expenses.

Beginning a few months before the end of the 42-month period, the parties made a series of motions and petitions, including emergency petitions to terminate or restrict visitation. An independent custody evaluator was appointed pursuant to the Act, 750 ILCS 5/604(b). Finally in 2011, the father petitioned to have his child support obligations terminated and sought child support from the mother on the grounds that he was now custodial parent for both children. The mother opposed the petitions.

The trial court entered an order granting in part and denying in part the father’s motion to terminate child support. The court found that the parties shared approximately equal parenting time with respect to the younger child, and that while the father earned a significant salary, the mother’s income and assets were minimal. Based on these findings, the court ordered the father to pay child support to the mother, as well as making the father solely responsible for any medical and dental expenses not covered by insurance.

Division Five of the First District of the Appellate Court reversed, albeit on limited grounds. The Appellate Court began by considering whether the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, 750 ILCS 5/505, gave a trial court discretion to award child support from a custodial to the non-custodial parent. Pointing to varying terms in the statute for the party ordered to pay support, as well as language referring to support orders directed at "either or both parents," the Court held that the language of the statute was not conclusive either way. The Court found that earlier Illinois precedent fell on both sides of the question, with Shoff v. Shoff holding that a custodial parent could not be ordered to pay support, and In re Marriage of Cesaretti holding that the custodial parent could be ordered to pay. The Court found that other jurisdictions had taken a range of approaches to the problem too. The Court concluded that the best interests of the children favored a flexible approach to child support orders. In view of each of these conclusions, the Court held that the trial court had discretion to order payments of child support by the custodial parent given the particular circumstances in the case at hand -- nearly equal parenting time, and a large disparity in resources between the parents.

The father also argued that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering him to pay child support and non-covered medical expenses. The Appellate Court found that under the circumstances, the trial court had not abused its discretion by ordering the father to pay support, but the court nevertheless reversed the award for recalculation. The court held that the trial court had assessed the parties' liability without up-to-date information regarding the parties' child care expenses after the switch in custody. The Appellate Court directed the trial court to consider updated expense data, as well as to "clearly explain the basis for any support awarded."

We expect Turk to be decided in the fall or winter of 2014.