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August 9, 1993


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., Trial Judge)

Before Ferren, Steadman, and King, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

FERREN, Associate Judge : On June 29, 1990, the trial court reduced for a period of twelve months the amount of the child support payments that appellee, John W. Robinson, had been ordered to make after a hearing two years earlier. Appellant, Claudia Robinson, contends that the trial court erred in doing so and that the relevant findings are clearly erroneous. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.


On April 1, 1985, the Robinsons, a married couple, adopted an eighteen-month-old son, Darren. A short time later, in August 1985, the couple separated. On September 8, 1986, the District of Columbia Superior Court received a request from the state of Maryland, where Claudia Robinson lives with Darren, to order John Robinson -- who at the time lived and worked in the District -- to pay child support in compliance with the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA), D.C. Code §§ 30-301 to 30-326 (1988 Repl.); Md. Code Ann., Fam. Law §§ 10-301 to 10-340 (1991). Because of difficulties effecting service on John Robinson, a hearing was not held until July 11, 1988.

After the July 11 hearing, the hearing commissioner entered a permanent order of support *fn1 in accordance with the child support guideline adopted by the Board of Judges of the District of Columbia Superior Court on September 28, 1987, which was in effect at that time. Super. Ct. Gen. Fam. R. app. I. *fn2 The hearing commissioner found that Claudia Robinson earned $27,000 per year and had child care expenses of $3,936 annually for Darren, who was then four years old. The hearing commissioner also found that John Robinson earned $30,491 per year and that he had previously been ordered to pay $300 per month ($3,600 per year) for the support of two children from another relationship. We discuss the hearing commissioner's findings in some detail, in order to establish a basis for comparison with the findings contained in the later order, now before us on appeal.

Under the child support guideline, a judicial officer entering an order uses prescribed figures to calculate the appropriate amount of support. *fn3 First, the amount that the non-custodial parent, here John Robinson, owes for the support of children of another relationship is subtracted from the non-custodial parent's gross income. *fn4 This calculation gave John Robinson an adjusted income of $26,891 ($30,491 - $3,600). Under the guideline then in effect, a non-custodial parent with an adjusted income between $26,000 and $75,000 was expected to contribute 25% of his or her income for the support of one child between the ages of zero and six. See Super. Ct. Gen. Fam. R. app. I, chart 1. *fn5 This percentage put John Robinson's basic support amount at $6,722.75. The guideline provides for an offset against this amount corresponding to a percentage based on the custodial parent's share of total parental gross income after deducting a standard threshold amount and child care expenses. Here, Claudia Robinson's gross annual income was reduced by a threshold amount of $16,500 and her child care expenses ($27,000 - $16,500 - $3,936 = $6,564). This result, $6,564, was then divided by the sum of both parents' adjusted incomes ($26,891 $6,564 = $33,455) to arrive at an offset of 19.62038% ($6,564 / $33,455 = 0.1962038) or $1,319.03 ($6,722.75 x 0.1962038 = $1,319.03). This offset left John Robinson with an adjusted support amount of $5,403.72 annually ($6,722.75 - $1,319.03 = $5,403.72) or $450.31 monthly ($5,403.72 / 12 = $450.31).

The guideline creates a presumption that the amount arrived at through the prescribed calculations is the appropriate support obligation for the non-custodial parent. But a judicial officer entering a support order may depart from the guideline in exceptional circumstances if the reasons for not applying the guideline are explained in writing. *fn7 A variation of plus or minus 3%, however, need not be justified by specific findings, although the judicial officer should consider a list of factors. *fn8

The Superior Court has apparently calculated the 3% variation by adding to or subtracting from the adjusted annual support amount 3% of the non-custodial parent's adjusted annual income. See Galbis v. Nadal, 626 A.2d 26 n.6 (D.C. June 10, 1993). For John Robinson, the result of this process ($26,891 x 0.03 = $806.73) was a high annual support obligation of $6,210.45 ($5,403.72 $806.73 = $6,210.45), or $517.54 monthly ($6,210.45 / 12 = $517.54), and a low annual support obligation of $4,596.99 ($5,403.72 - $806.73 = $4,596.99), or $383.08 monthly ($4,596.99 / 12 = $383.08). *fn9

The child support order that the hearing commissioner entered after the hearing on July 11, 1988, directed John Robinson to pay $383.08 per month, the low amount allowable according to the 3% variation calculated by the Superior Court's method. The hearing commissioner checked a box on the order indicating that the child support guideline formula was applied, but the support order does not establish with any certainty the factors that the hearing commissioner considered in finding the lower percentage appropriate.

In a space on the support order labelled "Respondent's Expenses," the hearing commissioner noted that John Robinson had a monthly loan payment of "$731 to pay off old loan balance $12,000 including his car note ($125 is his car note per week or $537 1987 Cougar)." *fn10 The hearing commissioner also made "Additional Findings":

Respondent is paying about $600 each month to retire old hills, some incurred by both parties when living as a family -- maybe 1/2 -- and these bills will be satisfied then his "net" will increase. Respondent pays $537 monthly for car note & car insurance, which is unnecessarily high.

If the loan payment of $731 included $537 for the car, John Robinson was paying less than $200 per month toward the old loan balance through that payment. The record does not identify another $400 in monthly payments that would explain how the hearing commissioner arrived at a total of "$600 each month to retire old bills."

Based on these findings, John Robinson's financial situation at the time the hearing commissioner's July 11, 1988, order was entered did not precisely fit any of the three factors listed in the guideline as "circumstances in which the lower percentage may be appropriate." Super. Ct. Cen. Fam. R. app. I; see supra note 8. Presumably, the hearing commissioner concluded that John Robinson's debts ...

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