In a case of first impression in Colorado, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether a trial court can order a parent to designate the other parent as representative payee of his Social Security benefits (specifically, SSDI), as part of a court order.
Colorado law on treatment of Social Security payments in a child support or maintenance case is a complicated mess! As we discuss in our blog post, and in our Colorado Family Law Guide article, whether (and how) Social Security is treated as income depends not just upon who receives the payments (custodial parent, non-custodial parent, or child), and the type of payment at issue.
Given the complexities of Social Security, it is not surprising that trial courts too can get confused. In a recent case, the Court of Appeals stepped in to provide some clarity to us.
In E.Q.1In the Interest of E.Q. & J.Q., 2020 COA 118., a father who was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments was incarcerated for sexually assaulting the parties’ daughter. The Department of Human Services (DHS) filed a dependency & neglect case petition in the juvenile court, and the mother filed a separate allocation of parental responsibilities case.
The parties stipulated in the juvenile court that mother would be the children’s custodian and have sole decision-making, while child support would be handled by the domestic relations court (where the mother had filed her APR case), not the juvenile court where the DHS case was pending. At a hearing, the trial judge adopted the stipulation, except that with respect to child support, the judge ordered the father to turn over his last three months of SSDI payments, plus restore the mother as his payee for future benefits. The father appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed.
Colorado Child Support Guidelines Apply to Juvenile Cases
The appellate court first held that despite a dependency & neglect proceeding is filed under Title 19 of the Colorado Statutes, when determining child support the trial judge is still required to follow the requirements of Colorado’s child support statute, C.R.S. 14-10-115.
The Children’s Code (Title 19) has its mini child support statute, C.R.S. 19-4-116, which in subsection 6 contains a list of factors the trial court is required to consider when determining child support, such as the child’s needs, the parties’ financial circumstances, the standards of living, etc. Among these factors are “the child support guidelines, as set forth in section 14-10-115.” Given that C.R.S. 19-4-116(1)(c) explicitly states that the child support statute applies to juvenile proceedings, the E.Q.2In the Interest of E.Q. & J.Q., 2020 COA 118, ¶ 24. court ruled that juvenile courts handling Title 19 cases must follow the child support statute.
For more information on Colorado’s child support guidelines, see our Child Support Basic Obligation article in the Colorado Family Law Guide.
State Court Cannot Assign Social Security Benefits
The main issue in contention was whether the trial judge erred in ordering the incarcerated parent to designate the other parent as his SSDI payee. Per the federal Social Security Act, a disabled person may receive SSDI benefits. 42 U.S. Code 423(a)(1). But while they count as income for child support purposes, and may be garnished to enforce child support, “no provision of the SSA permits a state court to determine who should serve as the representative payee.” E.Q,3In the Interest of E.Q. & J.Q., 2020 COA 118, ¶ 31.
The Court of Appeals reversed, and remanded to the trial court to determine support consistent with the Colorado child support guidelines.
Jurisdiction Over Child Support.
A somewhat technical side-issue arose over the jurisdiction of the juvenile court (which was handling the DHS case) to resolve child support, given that the judge adopted the parties’ stipulation providing that it would be handled in the separate parenting case. While the Father objected to the juvenile court exercising jurisdiction over child support, given the parties’ stipulation that it would be handled by the domestic relations court, the court rejected that aspect of his appeal, noting that C.R.S. 19-1-104(6) authorizes a court in a dependency & neglect proceeding to address “parenting time and child support matters.”
Despite the parties’ agreement, the juvenile court judge still had jurisdiction to resolve child support, as “parties may not preclude or limit the court’s authority concerning child support.” E.Q.4In the Interest of E.Q. & J.Q., 2020 COA 118 ¶ 13. However, the appellate court determined that ordering the father to release his SSDI payments (as child support) was inconsistent with the juvenile court adopting the stipulation that support would be handled by the domestic relations court instead.