- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Divorced fathers are criticizing a recent Virginia appellate court ruling that forces divorced parents to return to court to reduce child-support payments after their children turn 18.

The American Fathers Coalition says the decision only provides lawyers with more money and judges with too much intrusive power.

"It's the 'Lawyers Full Employment Act' [or] the 'Maternal Revenue Service,' " Stuart Miller, senior legislator for American Fathers Coalition, said of the ruling.

"It's scared everyone," said Murray Steinberg of Richmond, president of Family Resolution Council. "They really opened a big Pandora's box … . It's not a public policy. It's a court policy."

"It's good for courts. It's good for lawyers," said Mr. Steinberg, whose wife, a psychologist, works with him in the Parents Education Network, and the Children's and Family Coalition of Virginia.

Their outrage is directed at a Feb. 27 ruling by three-judge panel of Virginia's Court of Appeals.

Two of the three judges said Francis E. Shoup of Fairfax was in contempt of court and would have to pay $33,838 in back child support to his ex-wife, Heidi Shoup.

Mr. Shoup had argued that their 1994 divorce decree allowed him to reduce child-support payments by one-third as each of their three daughters graduated from high school or turned 18.

He reduced his $2,177 monthly payment by one-third and then by two-thirds after their first two children turned 18 and graduated in 1995 and 1997.

Mrs. Shoup, who did not initially object to the reductions, returned to court in 1999. Fairfax County Circuit Judge Kathleen H. McKay ruled in her favor and found Mr. Shoup in contempt.

That ruling was upheld by two of the three appellate judges. "The parties cannot by agreement limit or terminate the courts jurisdiction to make and modify child support awards," wrote Appeals Judge Rosemarie Annunziata, who was joined by Chief Judge Johanna Fitzpatrick.

"The court must approve modifications to the amount of support at the time the modification is made," Judge Annunziata wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge James W. Benton Jr. said the ruling undermines a previous policy that encouraged ex-spouses to work out their differences voluntarily. The ruling, he said, gave divorced parents no choice but to return to court.

"If people have to keep going back, all the money that should be spent on families will go to lawyers," said Mr. Shoup's attorney, Betty A. Thompson of Arlington. "How does that help the children?"

Ms. Thompson, who has specialized in divorce cases the last 20 years, has filed for a rehearing before the full five-member Court of Appeals. The next appeal would be to Virginia's Supreme Court.

Under the ruling, divorced parents still do not have to hire a lawyer. They can file a petition with the court and have a judge prepare a new order altering the support payments.

"If parents agree, why should the state get involved?" said Mr. Steinberg. "The state invades our right of privacy and gets involved when they should not."

"Parents have a right to raise children," he added.

Mr. Steinberg said divorcing parents will come up against another new law, effective July 1, that requires them to go through parental-education seminars before going to court for custody, visitation and/or support.

Mr. Miller, whose coalition works with 250 groups across the nation, said the Virginia ruling poisons an atmosphere of voluntary compliance for child support. "The only ones to profit are the lawyers," he said.

In most cases, courts do not need to enforce child support, Mr. Miller said, explaining that 90.2 percent of divorced fathers across the nation are paying support fully and on time.

It's too early to make judgment, said Paul Fletcher, a Richmond lawyer and publisher of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, adding that the rehearing might resolve the issue.

"These self-executing support agreements were really quite common. People felt like it was a normal device they could use with kids coming of age in a couple of years," Mr. Fletcher said.

"The impact that could affect thousands of divorced persons is just beginning to trickle out across the state," Mr. Fletcher said. "The lawyers are quite concerned.

"It's unsettling," Mr. Fletcher said of the possibility of returning to court repeatedly. "You think [that child support] is settled, but it's not."

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