How is a worker’s lump-sum settlement for a disabling injury — a payment meant to compensate for lost income for the remainder of the worker’s expected working life — treated for purposes of calculating the non-custodial parent’s child support obligation? On Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held in In re Marriage of Mayfield that such payments are presumptively treated like any other form of income; the non-custodial parent’s guideline support obligation is 20% of the total settlement. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court rulings in Mayfield is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
The parties married in 1995. After having two children, they divorced in 2003. At the time, the father was ordered to pay weekly child support. One year later, he sought a modification in his obligation, alleging that he’d been laid off. The mother responded with a petition for a rule to show cause, arguing that the father was in arrears. The mother’s petition was granted, and the father’s obligation was increased. Two additional motions to modify were filed in 2009 and 2011 — the first by the father, the second by the mother. During a hearing on the 2011 petition, the father admitted he had received a lump sum workers compensation settlement four years earlier, following a disabling injury. The settlement had come to nearly $240,000 after deducting fees and expenses, but between 2007 and 2011, the father had spent most of the money.
Section 505(a) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act provides that the benchmark calculation for support of one child is 20% of the supporting party’s net income. The guidelines apply unless the Court finds that a deviation is appropriate in the best interests of the child, determined in light of several enumerated statutory factors, such as the resources and needs of the noncustodial parent, and the standard of living the child would have had if the marriage had continued. If the court varies from the guidelines, it must state the guidelines amount and provide a reason for the variance.
Before the Circuit and Appellate Courts, the father argued that applying the guidelines would be patently unfair under the circumstances in Mayfield. The settlement was intended to represent lost income for the remainder of his expected working life, he pointed out, but the minor child had only a few years left before attaining her majority. Both courts disagreed, holding that the guidelines calculation should apply to the full amount.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice Mary Jane Theis, the Supreme Court affirmed. The father relied primarily upon In re Marriage of Wolfe. In Wolfe, the court had held that directing payment of 20% of a lump-sum settlement constituted a deviation from the guidelines where the settlement represented far more years of lost wages than the minor daughter had until attaining her majority. Since the Circuit Court didn’t explain the deviation, such an order was by definition an abuse of discretion. But the Supreme Court held that Wolfe turned the Dissolution Act on its head, treating the Circuit Court’s refusal to deviate as itself being a deviation. Wolfe was wrongly decided, the Court held, and it was overruled.
In the end, the Court found, the case was determined by a simple application of the statute. The father was seeking a deviation from the guidelines. He hadn’t presented evidence supporting any of the statutory factors supporting a deviation. Therefore, none was permitted.
Ultimately, the Mayfield opinion doesn’t mean that a lifetime lump-sum settlement can never lead to a deviation from the guidelines. Rather, it means that such a settlement doesn’t by definition trigger a deviation. Such settlements are treated like any other form of income — the trial court’s discretion to deviation from the statutory 20% guideline is governed by the statutory factors.