Deeply Divided MS Court Says Deceased Employee’s Ex-Wife May Impose Lien for Child Support

Lien Allowed in Spite of Fact that Children Had Been Adopted by Step-Father

In a 5-4 decision, the Court of Appeals of Mississippi held the biological children of a deceased employee (and their mother) enjoyed a lien against the employee’s workers’ compensation death benefits for almost $35,000 in unpaid child support in spite of the fact that the children had been adopted by their step-father after their biological parents divorced [Young v. Air Masters Mech., 2019 Miss. App. LEXIS 152 (Apr. 16, 2019)]. The Commission had found that in as much as the children were not dependent upon the deceased employee at the time of his death, they enjoyed no special status or interest in the death benefits.

Background

Tewksbury (the employee) and Young were divorced in 2006. At the time of their divorce, Tewksbury was ordered to pay $105 per week in child support for their two minor children, Lane and Emma. Tewksbury made some periodic payments of child support over the course of two years, but stopped making payments in 2008.

Young subsequently married Gerald Allen Young Jr., and they filed a petition in Chancery Court seeking the adoption of Lane and Emma. On August 13, 2013, the chancery court entered an adoption decree, whereby Gerald adopted Lane and Emma and the children’s surnames were changed to “Young.” Tewksbury terminated his parental rights on August 1, 2013, as part of the adoption. At that point in time, Tewksbury owed $34,759 in child support.

Tewksbury died in 2015, as a result of an accidental injury that arose within the course and scope of his employment. Young, his ex-wife, filed a petition with the Commission on behalf of their two minor children, seeking payment of $34,759 in outstanding child support payments.

ALJ’s Decision Reversed

An ALJ found that the $34,759 lien for child support was valid and payable pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. § 71-3-129 (Rev. 2011), but the Commission reversed, finding that the minor children were ineligible for benefits because they were not dependents of Tewksbury under Miss. Code Ann. § 71-3-25 (Rev. 2011). Young appealed.

Statutory Framework

The majority of the Appeals Court set out the statutory framework involved in the case, noting that § 71-3-129 provides in relevant part that the “Mississippi Department of Human Services, Division of Child Support Enforcement (the department) or the obligee may cause a lien for unpaid and delinquent child or spousal support to be placed upon any workers’ compensation benefits payable to an obligor delinquent in child support …” [emphasis added].

The statute also provides that “[a]ny person(s), firm(s), corporation(s), including an insurance carrier, making any payment of workers’ compensation benefits to such obligor or to his attorney(s), heir(s) or legal representative(s), after receipt of such notice …, shall be liable to the obligee” [emphasis added].

The majority observed that the Commission found that Lane and Emma ceased being Tewksbury’s dependents on the day of their adoption, and that under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, there were no death benefits owed to them. The majority reviewed the Commission’s reliance upon a decision by the Supreme Court of Mississippi, W.R. Fairchild Const. Co. v. Owens, 224 So. 2d 571, 575 (Miss. 1969), noting that in Fairchild, the Court held that a child given up for adoption was not entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits when her natural father was killed on the job. The court found that the natural father’s obligation to support his biological daughter had been terminated under our adoption statute, § 93-17-13, and therefore the daughter was no longer presumed to be a dependent of her natural father for purposes of the workers’ compensation statute.

The majority of the Appeals Court said that there was an important difference between the instant case and Fairchild. Fairchild did not involve a valid lien for child support that accrued prior to the adoption. Fairchild dealt with dependency of the child at the time of death.

Child Support Cannot Be Discharged

The majority said the Commission was without authority to discharge a lien for delinquent child support filed pursuant to section 71-3-129. The majority also observed that the Mississippi Supreme Court had consistently held that child support payments vest in the child as they accrue [Tanner v. Rowland, 598 So. 2d 783, 786 (Miss. 1992)]. Once they have become vested, just as they cannot be contracted away by the parents, they cannot be modified or forgiven by the courts. According to the majority, Young’s lien was valid under the workers’ compensation statutes. The case was remanded for the Commission to determine whether a valid child support lien was a benefit payable under the death benefits statute.

Dissent

Judge Wilson, joined by three others, dissented. The judge concentrated on the language of § 71-3-129, specifically the portion that allows the department or the obligee to cause a lien for unpaid and delinquent child or spousal support to be placed upon “any workers’ compensation benefits payable to an obligor delinquent in child support ….” Workers’ compensation death benefits are not payable to the obligor (i.e., to the deceased parent who owes the child support. According to Judge Wilson, the statutory lien did not apply to death benefits, and without any statutory dependents, “there were no death benefits to put a lien on anyway” [Dissent, ¶20].

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