What happens to a California child support order when the Baby Mama marries the father?

The shorthand answer to that question is that the prior court order for child support is Dad marries baby mamaautomatically extinguished. That is what the 4th circuit of the California appellate court recently held in the 2012 case of In re Marriage of Wilson & Bodine (2012) 207 Cal. App. 4th. 768.

I recently had a client who was facing a Contempt charge for child support payments due from 2012 to the present. The facts were as follows. He and Mom had a child in 1998. In 2002, the Baby momma got a court order for child support based on the findings in a paternity test, which proved that my client is the biological father. The parties got married in 2005. They were divorced in 2009. In 2005, after the parties were married, my client stopped making child support payments. He did not resume making child support payments when they divorced in 2009.  Then, in 2013, the former wife (and former baby mama) moved the court for payments which were past due under the 2002 child support order. The County backed mom and filed Contempt charges against my client. Of course Contempt charges are very serious because that means the client is facing potential jail time.

Then I found the Wilson-Bodine case. In a nut shell, that case states that court orders for child support stem from the parties separate interests in child custody and child support when they are living apart, and raising their children separately. However, once the parties are married, they then have joint interests in the support and custody of their children. Accordingly, any former court orders for child support are automatically extinguished, when the parties subsequently marry. The result is the same whether the former child support order arose from a prior marriage, or from a paternity action.

The Wilson-Bodine court reasoned that in California, there are built in protections for children within the dissolution proceedings. All California courts in a divorce proceeding will examine the income of both parties, and give orders for child support both when the proceedings are underway, and when the parties are finally divorced. Therefore, there is no longer a need to enforce or to rely upon a child support order from a proceeding that arose prior to the time the parties were married.

Accordingly, in my client’s case, since the county was relying on a 2002 child support order, which was entered prior to the time the parties were married in 2005, the Contempt charge against my client had to be dismissed, as a matter of law.  Of course, my client was relieved because that meant he did not have to go to jail. He also does not have to make back payments for past due child support, since said payments were based on the 2002 court order. Under the ruling in  Bodine-Wilson, that order was automatically extinguished when the parties married in 2005.

Keep in mind, however, that he may still be liable for child support based on orders from the 2009 divorce proceeding. The County just cannot go after him for past due payments which are based on the 2002 court order.

You all may be thinking that is just another quirky decision coming out of California. You will be surprised to learn that, in fact, that is not the case, at all! The 4th Appellate District relied on the reasoning in a case coming out of North Dakota, when it handed down its ruling the Bodine-Wilson matter. (See Schaff vs. Schaff (N.D. 1989) 446 N.W. 2d 28, at 31).