Court of Appeals essentially affirms family court on child support and attorney’s fees

Posted Tuesday, September 19th, 2023 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney's Fees, Child Custody, Contempt/Enforcement of Orders, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

I’ve delayed blogging on the August 30, 2023, Court of Appeals opinion in Brantley v. Brantley until remittitur issued because I represented the Appellant on the appeal and I don’t blog on my own appeals until the appeal is final. Despite the partial modification and reversal, Brantley is a not-unexpected but still disappointing loss.

Brantley stems from a custody modification action brought by Ex-Wife/Mother when Father moved from the Columbia area.  Father was self-employed with a variety of income sources.  In his divorce, the parties stipulated to his income.  In this modification case, his income was a source of much dispute—with Wife hiring her own financial expert to opine on Father’s income.

At trial, the family court gave Mother primary custody of the children, found Father in contempt on two issues, set his child support based on sole custody with an income figure determined by Mother’s expert (while also requiring him to pay an income share of the children’s extracurricular activities), and required him to pay $75,000 in Mother’s attorney’s fees.  Father appealed these issues.

By the time the appeal reached oral argument, the children had emancipated, rendering custody issues moot, and child support issues only subject to retroactive adjustment.  With a small modification too minor to matter, the Court of Appeals affirmed the family court’s determination of Father’s income.  As the Court of Appeals accurately described the argument, I was able to make from the trial record:

The bulk of Father’s arguments regarding inaccurate assumptions made by the family court and Leventis [Mother’s financial expert] seem to quibble with the categorization of certain expenses and Leventis’s lack of communication with Father, his bookkeeper, and his CPAs. However, Father at no time substantiates his arguments with sufficient documentation demonstrating obvious error on part of either the family court or Leventis. Therefore, Father’s arguments fail due to his inability to supply the court with any meaningful representation of his income.

The Court of Appeals (accurately) found Father’s argument on Mother’s earning capacity unpreserved for appeal. It affirmed the income shares distribution of extracurricular expenses by noting that Father had agreed to that in the divorce—while not addressing that this was a holistic part of an agreement that also had shared custody child support and an agreement on Father’s income.  Had it been cost effective to pursue that issue further, I would have encouraged Father to do so.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the finding of contempt on failing to timely notify Mother of Father’s anticipated move.  The evidence showed that Father signed a lease long before he provided Mother his new address. The Court of Appeals rejected his argument that he didn’t need to inform Mother of the new address until he knew when he was actually moving.

The Court of Appeals reversed the finding that Father was in contempt for enrolling the older son in summer school at Chapin High School, finding that this did not violate a court order requiring the children to finish the prior school year in Richland School District Two.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the $75,000 attorney fee award based essentially on affirming the family court’s determination of his income and the issues with his financial disclosure.  In justifying this, the Court of Appeals noted:

Highlighted in this analysis is the family court’s determination that this case was complicated due to split custody, ongoing parent-child relationship issues, and allegations of parental alienation. Further, the family court found that Father’s evasive behavior, inaccurate disclosures, and a general lack of credibility increased the extent and difficulty of this case. The lynchpin of the award stems from Father’s credibility problems and failure to be forthright during trial. The family court noted “[r]ather than providing a direct answer when it became clear that he had the information, it took several questions to elicit the information” and even then Father’s answers were evasive and vague. Father admitted there were multiple mistakes and inaccuracies across his tax returns accompanied by “sloppy bookkeeping.” The family court stated that it relies heavily on financial declarations, especially in cases in which a party’s income is in dispute, and any inaccuracies are taken seriously and can cast doubt on the veracity of the documents. Throughout the trial, the record demonstrates that Father failed to update discovery responses or provide supporting documentation for many of his arguments and claims. Based on the foregoing, we find the family court’s award of attorney’s fees and costs to Mother was appropriate when considering the relevant factors.

Brantley represents my third published appeal in which my client’s lack of credibility led the Court of Appeals to affirm the family court award of more attorney’s fees than would otherwise be allowable.  One of those prior appeals, Spreeuw v. Barker, 385 S.C. 45, 65, 682 S.E.2d 843, 853 (Ct. App. 2009), is cited heavily in Brantley.  In none of those cases was I the Appellant’s trial attorney.  The Court of Appeals never notes this.  It’s quite a bad reputation I am unjustly developing.

2 thoughts on Court of Appeals essentially affirms family court on child support and attorney’s fees

  1. RDain says:

    I watched this entire trial except for the final forensic psychologist. It was a fiasco. Given facts known that exist outside this case, I was stunned the judge did not recuse herself.

  2. Extremely helpful as my nephew is dealing with a custody case with many of the same factors. I appreciate your clarification of the rulings. Based on the hope that our judges want the best for the child(ren) and rule on arguments with that in mind, I have advised my nephew to parent the best he knows how in the face of the prejudice against the non-custodial father across the state of SC.

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