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In re White

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

February 9, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF WENDY S. WHITE AND MICHAEL L. WHITE

          Argued: November 16, 2017

         10th Circuit Court-Brentwood Family Division

          Marshall Law Office PLLC, of East Kingston (Keri J. Marshall on the brief), and Law Offices of Sharon J. Rondeau, of Exeter (Sharon J. Rondeau orally), for the petitioner.

          Sullivan Law Office, of Salem (Leah Sullivan on the brief and orally), for the respondent.

          LYNN, J.

         The petitioner, Wendy S. White (Mother), appeals an order of the Circuit Court (LeFrancois, J.) finding that the respondent, Michael L. White (Father), was entitled to a retroactive modification of his support obligation based upon the emancipation of the parties' older child. We reverse and remand.

         The following facts are drawn from the record. The Mother and the Father were married and had two children. They divorced in 2003, at which time their children were minors. The terms of the divorce were set out in the parties' permanent stipulation, which was approved by the court. The stipulation provided that the Father was to pay child support for the two children, and incorporated a "Uniform Support Order" (USO) that required him to pay $1, 314 per month. In February 2010, the court issued a new USO (2010 USO) modifying the Father's child support obligation so that he was required to pay $390 every two weeks.

         In June 2014, the parties' older child became emancipated upon graduation from high school. In 2016, the Father petitioned for "a three year review" of the 2010 USO. Specifically, he sought to "[m]odify" his child support obligation based upon the emancipation of the parties' older child and to have that modification be made retroactive to July 1, 2014. The Mother argued that there had been no substantial financial change warranting a change in the Father's support obligation. She further contended that any change could be made retroactive only to the date of service of the Father's petition in August 2016.

         Following a hearing, the trial court issued an order in February 2017 ruling that, pursuant to RSA 461-A:14, IV, "modification [was] required to be made as of the date of emancipation [of the parties' older child], which in this case means the modification should take place as of August 2014." The court found that the statute "requires termination of the child support [for the older child] without further legal action" and, therefore, that "there can be no arrearages accrued in connection with child support calculated for [the child] after July 2014 because no further child support for [the parties' child] could be ordered after July 2014." As a result, the court recalculated the Father's child support obligation "from July 2014 through December 2016, using the income and expenses in effect at that time based on one minor child . . . rather than two." Based upon this recalculation, the court reduced the total amount of arrearages owed by the Father dating back to July 2014. The court also issued a new USO based upon the three-year review as requested by the Father, which reduced his child support obligation to $500 per month. This appeal followed.

         We will not disturb the trial court's rulings regarding child support absent an unsustainable exercise of discretion or an error of law. In the Matter of Nicholson & Nicholson, 164 N.H. 105, 107 (2012). "The party challenging the court's order has the burden of showing that the order was improper and unfair." In the Matter of Johnson & Johnson, 158 N.H. 555, 558 (2009) (quotation omitted).

         On appeal, the Mother argues that the trial court "erred as a matter of law in retroactively modifying the [Father's] child support obligation in a manner that altered the accrued child support arrearage, " contrary to RSA 461-A:14, VIII and RSA 458-C:7, II. The Father counters that RSA 461-A:14, VIII and RSA 458-C:7, II do not apply because the court did not modify his child support obligation. Rather, he maintains that, pursuant to RSA 461-A:14, IV, when the parties' older child became emancipated in July 2014, his support obligation for that child terminated without further legal action and, therefore, the court merely recalculated the amount of arrearages based upon the date of termination.

         We turn first to the Father's argument that, pursuant to RSA 461-A:14, IV, his support obligation terminated without further legal action upon the emancipation of the parties' older child. Resolution of this argument requires us to engage in statutory interpretation, and, therefore, our review is de novo. See In the Matter of Doherty & Doherty, 168 N.H. 694, 697 (2016). We are the final arbiter of the legislature's intent as expressed in the words of the statute considered as a whole. Id. "We first look to the language of the statute itself, and, if possible, construe that language according to its plain and ordinary meaning." In the Matter of State of N.H. & Louder, 166 N.H. 353, 355 (2014) (quotation omitted). We interpret legislative intent from the statute as written, and we will not consider what the legislature might have said or add words that the legislature did not include. In the Matter of Doherty & Doherty, 168 N.H. at 697. "We construe all parts of a statute together to effectuate its overall purpose and avoid an absurd or unjust result." In the Matter of State of N.H. & Louder, 166 N.H. at 355 (quotation omitted). "Moreover, we do not consider words and phrases in isolation, but rather within the context of the statute as a whole." Id. (quotation omitted).

         Because the trial court applied the current version of RSA 461-A:14, IV, and the parties do not argue otherwise on appeal, for purposes of this appeal, we assume that the current version of the statute applies. RSA 461-A:14, IV (Supp. 2017) provides, in pertinent part:

The amount of a child support obligation shall remain as stated in the order until the dependent child for whom support is ordered completes his or her high school education or reaches the age of 18 years, whichever is later, . . . at which time the child ...

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