Family law is one of those areas of practice with a lot of repetition.
I often feel as though I could tell every client’s story for them after listening for five minutes in the initial consultation.
Of course, that isn’t really the case, but more often than not nothing surprises me and nothing seems really out of the realm of possibility. I’ve heard everything from criminal intent to aggressive abuse to sexual prurience and beyond.
Certainly, I haven’t heard it all yet, but I’m pretty sure that within another five or 10 years I most assuredly will have.
Regardless, nothing has really stopped me in my tracks in a very long time.
I have a pro bono client who is a remarkable dad and has devoted his life to his son. He coaches him in every sport, moved to a neighborhood with the best possible school, helps with homework nightly and makes sure his child wants for nothing.
More than three years ago, we secured a court order granting him 100 percent timesharing with his young son due to the mother’s abuse and neglect.
Two years after his son moved in with him full-time, the father was notified by the Department of Revenue’s Child Support Enforcement department that his driver’s license had been suspended for failure to pay child support to his son’s mother.
A couple of weeks later, he received a notice stating he owed approximately $30,000 in child support arrearages and kindly providing a way to start making monthly payments to a mother who had not had their son with her for at least two years.
When my client appeared at a hearing, the hearing officer agreed the child support was current and my client’s driver’s license was reinstated.
Shortly thereafter, my client received notification that his income tax refund check had been seized to pay child support arrearages and then discovered his son’s Health Savings Account had been seized as well.
I began calling the state’s local attorney –– to no avail.
They didn’t know the case and wouldn’t help me, so I contacted the Department of Revenue in Tallahassee and provided all manner of documentation and court orders –– and received no response.
I did find out through local sources, however, that all the mother had to do to start an action against my client with the Child Support Enforcement Department was sign an affidavit and claim the father owed her child support.
No actual proof is required. No court order is required. When anyone attempts to get state assistance, such as food stamps, they are offered an affidavit and can pick a child support arrearage number out of thin air.
Without any kind of hearing, much less a court order, the state unilaterally sanctioned my client by suspending his driver’s license and seizing his money.
I know I’ve forgotten some things I have learned about the law over the years but I’m fairly certain that somewhere along the line want I’ve described can be chalked up to violation of my client’s due process rights.
I attended a Continuing Legal Education luncheon a few months ago and listened to a woman from the Child Support Enforcement Department extolling the department’s power in seizing funds from unsuspecting parents for child support and child support arrearages.
She was incredibly proud of the more than $1 million seized by the state every year in support of Florida’s children.
This is, of course, a valuable service for parents with legitimate claims.
I suspect I wasn’t altogether respectful as I repeatedly questioned her about situations such as my client’s and the department’s unilateral actions without a court order. Remarkably I heard other attorneys in the room mirroring my scenario and asking the same questions.
Just before I had a hearing on the matter in Family Law Court, after failing to convince a child support hearing officer the state had no right to intervene on my family law case, I discovered my client’s alleged child support arrearage had, according to Child Support Enforcement, climbed to more than $64,000.
How in the world is this possible?
It’s possible because the Department of Revenue’s Child Support Enforcement division makes its own rules.
My Circuit Court judge on the family law bench was just as stunned to learn about the department’s actions as I had been and thankfully, he ordered a cessation of all seizures by the state in this case and a return of any seized funds still being held (which have not been returned).
My client was relatively lucky because he has someone in his corner helping him fight the good fight and I won’t stop until justice is done. But so many parents in Florida cannot afford legal representation and do not have help fighting the behemoth that is the Department of Revenue’s Child Support Enforcement Department.
Parents lose savings and their ability to drive and they face other sanctions being leveled against them without a chance to state their case in a court of law. This must change and it must change immediately.
Several other attorneys have approached me with stories similar to my client’s case and asking what can be done about it. If you want to get involved, think about joining The Jacksonville Bar Association’s Family Law Division.