The Attorney General Can’t Always Modify Child Support

When you’re dealing with the law you have to follow the rules. This is true for every divorce, and it applies to you as well as the government. One man in Harris County was able to defeat the Attorney General when they tried to act beyond the scope of their power. Here is what happened.

John Crawford divorced his wife several years ago. The final divorce decree required he pay child support for his two children until they were 18 years old. Pretty standard stuff. Well, he fell behind in his payments. The Attorney General filed an enforcement lawsuit against him. The result of that case was a $11,000 judgment against him for past due child support.

The next year the Attorney General (OAG) filed another lawsuit. But this one was a little different. They requested the Court modify the existing child support order. They did this to extend child support past the age of 18 because the children involved were disabled. John defended the case based on an absence of standing and ended up defeating the entire office of the Texas Attorney General.

Does The Attorney General Have Broad Powers?

The OAG relied on Texas Family Code 102.007. That statute provides “In providing [Title IV-D] services authorized by Chapter 231, the Title IV-D agency … may file a child support action authorized under this title, including a suit for modification or a motion for enforcement.”

It sounds like they are on to something, doesn’t it? That statute is a broad grant of power that specifically includes modification.

If that was the only relevant statute, they would be on to something. However, there is another statute involved. A more specific statute.

There’s a Statute For That

It may not seem like it sometimes, but there are rules for who can file certain kinds of lawsuits. Some of these rules are for judicial efficiency. Others are to make sure that the parties involved have a significant enough interest to fully determine the issue.

The Texas Family Code contains a clear and specific statute on this issue. It specifically outlines which individuals may seek court ordered support for adult children. That list includes:

  1. either the parent or guardian of the child,
  2. or the child themselves as long as they are 18 or older (and mentally competent).

This does not mean the Attorney General can never file a case to modify child support. It just means they can’t file their own case. If either category of people listed above assign their rights to the Attorney General, then the Attorney General can pursue modification.

Specific Beats General

So in this case we have a clash between two statutes. The first one is broad and general. The second one is detailed and specific. As a general rule, a judge will usually rely on the specific statute when it conflicts with a broader statute. That is what happened here. The second statute restricted who has standing to file a child support modification lawsuit.

The only way the Attorney General could get around that issue was to use an assignment from one of the people who could file the case themselves.

In this case neither the parent nor the children assigned their right to file suit to the OAG. Further, the OAG never argued that this right was granted to them by one of the individuals able to bring suit. Instead, the OAG attempted to assert that it had general standing to file suit based on other provisions found in the Family Code. The judge disagreed and ruled for the father.

322 S.W.3d 858