Yesterday’s Court of Appeals opinion in Bennett v. Rector, 389 S.C. 274, 697 S.E.2d 715 (Ct.App. 2010), provides further guidance on imputation of income in a child support case. Living “The Life of Riley” on a claimed income of $1,967 a month while claiming a monthly income between six to ten times greater in financial statements is generally going to destroy one’s credibility in a family court trial.
In Bennett a non-custodial mother appealed an award of child support that was set on an imputed income of $12,416.66 per month when her financial declaration listed income of $1,967 per month. Mother appealed this issue and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Numerous evidence indicated that Mother’s income was greater than what she had claimed. The same financial declaration that listed her income as $1,967 per month listed monthly expenses amounting to $7,357, including $1,350 for the lease for her car, which she was current on. She stated she applied for a car loan on June 23, 2006, and provided her income as $141,000 a year but contended that was projected income. She also testified that in December of 2005, she purchased a house for $795,000 using $450,000 she had acquired from other property. She stated she had completed an application for a $200,000 line of equity against her home that listed her gross monthly income as $21,000.
Further hurting Mother was her odd behavior during trial. She simply absented herself from much of the trial except when she was testifying. The family court judge commented:
[Mother] voluntarily absented herself from the courtroom for approximately three-quarters . . . of the hearing. This [c]ourt has not previously encountered a situation where a party voluntarily absented himself or herself from the courtroom during the proceeding, although such occurrence might be expected or encountered in default proceedings or where a party was unavailable by reason of distance or illness, etc. This case presented the first time that this [c]ourt has ever had a party who was available but who voluntarily absented herself from the courtroom during most of the proceedings. This election on the part of [Mother] denied the [c]ourt the opportunity to observe her demeanor during this trial, other than during the period in which she was testifying. During her period of testimony, however, this [c]ourt finds her demeanor indicated a lack of credibility.
As the Court of Appeals noted in affirming the imputation of income in setting child support:
Mother obviously had access to a large amount of money judging from her monthly expenses, expensive properties, and shopping habits. Mother listed her monthly income at the amount the family court found it to be and higher on documents she filled out during the pendency of this case. She has $30,000 in a savings account that she claims she inherited and also owns several expensive properties.]
Given Mother’s lack of credibility on financial issues and Father’s successful results in setting child support, coupled with the assets Mother had available to pay attorney’s fees, led the Court of Appeals to also affirm the award of $25,000 in attorney’s fees to Father.