- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

RICHMOND (AP) Divorced parents do not have to go back to court for every change in child support, as long as the changes are in the best interests of the children, the Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled.

In February, a three-judge panel of the 11-member court ordered a Fairfax County father to pay nearly $34,000 in back child support, even though he had not violated a separation agreement.

In the agreement, the father said he would pay $2,177 monthly to support his three children, but the obligation to provide support for each child ended when he or she turned 18.

If the parents' financial circumstances changed, they would follow child-support guidelines specified in state law.

When the oldest child turned 18 in November 1995, the father reduced the support payment to his former wife by a third. In May 1997, he reduced it by another third when the middle child became an adult.

The mother filed a petition in April 1999 to hold the father in contempt of court for failing to pay $2,177 each month to that date.

Circuit Judge Kathleen H. MacKay concluded that a judge not the father would reduce the amount of child support, and she ordered him to pay $33,830 in back child support.

The panel agreed 2-1 with Judge MacKay, but the full court decided to rehear the case. In a ruling issued last week, the court unanimously reversed Judge MacKay's decision.

Requiring parents to return to court for approval "would undermine the commonwealth's policy in favor of promoting resolution of disputes concerning the maintenance and care of children upon divorce," Judge Rosemarie Annunziata wrote for the unanimous court.

She said the judge who signed the divorce decree had found that the support agreement was in the best interests of the children, and nothing in the decree prevented either parent from returning to court to modify the agreement if circumstances changed.

Judge Annunziata sent the case back to the trial court for a determination of whether the father reduced his payments by more than the child-support guidelines allow.

Lawrence D. Diehl, a divorce lawyer in Hopewell, hailed the decision. He said such agreements have become more frequent, with lawyers and parents working to avoid the time and expense of going back to court for foreseeable changes in circumstances.

Mr. Diehl said divorce lawyers already have prepared draft legislation for this month's General Assembly session that would have basically the same effect as the court's ruling last week.

He said he did not know whether the lawyers would press for legislation or accept the court decision as the final word.

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