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Child support goes to caregiver, not payee, court says

Grandmother owed escrow earmarked for late mother

The most important name on a child-support order is not the payee’s but the child’s, Maryland’s second highest court said in ruling child-support money held in escrow for a youngster should be released to the grandmother who became the caregiver upon the death of the mother, the payee.

In its reported 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the circuit court was wrong not to give the grandmother the more than $5,000 the father had paid to the Prince George’s County Office of Child Support Enforcement, as well as the more than $15,000 he owed in arrearage.

The Prince George’s County Circuit Court had rejected the county’s Office of Child Support Enforcement request that it be allowed to pay the grandmother the escrowed money and arrearage.

The trial court erroneously held itself powerless because the mother, though deceased, remained listed as the payee on the child support order, according to the appellate opinion.

As a result, the circuit court wrongfully returned the $5,029.77 to the father and forgave his $15,557.77 in arrearage upon his being awarded custody nearly two years after the grandmother assumed care of the two children, the appeals court added.

“Generally, a parent owes the obligation of financial support to the child, not to the other parent,” Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

“Moreover, a parent’s obligation to pay support does not cease with the custodial parent’s death,” added Thieme, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “On the contrary, the non-custodial parent remains under a continuing obligation to provide for the support of his children until such time as the order is modified.”

The father, Douglas Brown, was paying the support to the enforcement office following the Sept. 8, 2014, death of Lashaun Polly, the mother of their two children. Willie Mae Polly, the maternal grandmother, began caring for the children and the office held Brown’s payments in escrow due to the lack of a court order expressly enabling them to pay the grandmother.

In April 2016, the office intervened on the grandmother’s behalf, seeking a court order that it may disburse the held money to her, as well as credit her the arrearage. Brown was awarded custody of the children in August 2016 and moved to end his child-support obligation, which was granted.

The enforcement office persisted with its effort to get the escrowed funds awarded to the grandmother, but the circuit court said that money must revert to the father because the grandmother’s name was not on the court order.

The Court of Special Appeals disagreed.

“Here, the circuit court could have released the escrowed child-support payments to the grandmother because she … had provided care for the children following the death of their mother,” Thieme wrote April 5. “However, the circuit court … erroneously believed that it could not release the escrowed money to the grandmother because she had no legal authority over the children.”

Because the father’s support obligation included arrearage, those outstanding funds would also be owing to the grandmother during the time the children were in her care, Thieme added.

Judges Deborah S. Eyler and Melanie M. Shaw Geter joined Thieme’s opinion in Prince George’s County Office of Child Support Enforcement v. Douglas Brown, No. 2417, September Term 2016.

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