The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to review a state appellate court decision in an Orange County child-support dispute that prosecutors say makes it impossible for them to force many parents in the county to pay what they legally owe.
The case that will be reviewed by the high court involves Philip and Alta Sue Feiock, who were divorced in 1976. Last year, Philip Feiock failed to make court-ordered $150 monthly child-support payments.
At a contempt-of-court hearing, prosecutors proved that Feiock knew of the court order and failed to comply. A judge gave him a 25-day suspended sentence, placed him on probation and ordered him to pay.
But in April, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana ruled that Feiock could not be held in contempt without proof that he was financially able to make the payments. The California Supreme Court declined to review that decision.
The key issue the U.S. high court will consider is who must prove that the parent is able to pay. The state appellate court ruled that putting the burden of proof on the parent rather than the prosecutor deprives the defendant of the constitutional right to a presumption of innocence.
To grant a child-support order in the first place, a court must determine that the spouse has the financial ability to pay. Prosecutors say that making the district attorney's office prove ability to pay over and over for every missed payment would be burdensome and in some cases, such as with self-employed parents, may be impossible.
Lawyers on both sides of the case agreed that a U.S Supreme Court decision is at least a year away.