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Major changes to past-due child support laws by The Tennessee General Assembly

The Tennessee General Assembly recently enacted a major change to laws concerning past-due child support by substantially limiting the amount of overdue child support that can be awarded. The new law limits backdating unpaid child support to five years from the date an action to collect unpaid support is filed. For example, if a non-custodial parent has failed to pay child support for ten years, the custodial parent can only seek to collect unpaid child support for the first five years before they filed their action with the court. The other five years support that went unpaid, years six through ten, would generally be uncollectible. Previously, a custodial parent could seek to collect unpaid child support dating back to the child's birth date. For actions filed after July 1, 2017, this is no longer the case.

The amendment allowing only five years of retroactive support encourages filing actions for unpaid support sooner rather than later, in order to avoid missing out on years of valuable child support that would otherwise be due. It also certainly makes it easier for non-custodial parents to pay off past-due child support they may owe, as their penalty will be limited to only the five previous years' worth of unpaid support. With the old law, it was not uncommon for a parent to be paying support even after a child reached adulthood if the parent owed enough in unpaid child support.

However, the new law may also greatly limit a recipient parent's ability to collect unpaid support. Even though filing an action sooner rather than later may help ensure that all unpaid support is collected, it is not always easy or possible for parents to pursue collecting the support that is owed to them. There are many circumstances that may arise which hinder a custodial parent's ability to collect past-due child support, and the five year limit makes waiting more costly.

The law does offer some hope for custodial parents in the fact that it allows for a different award if a parent can "for good cause show[], that a different award. . . is in the interests of justice." Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-101(e)(1)(I)(i). "Good cause" may include a number of things, but overall involves showing the facts of the case warrant an award of past-due child support beyond the five year maximum. However, a non-custodial parent has the same opportunity to demonstrate that a shorter period should be used to calculate the amount of support owed. Ultimately, the facts and circumstances of every individual case will determine if any change is warranted, but custodial parents should no longer expect to receive unpaid child support dating back more than five years.

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