Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Antonelli v. Antonelli

Citation. Antonelli v. Antonelli, 242 Va. 152, 409 S.E.2d 117, 1991 Va. LEXIS 126, 8 Va. Law Rep. 906 (Va. Sept. 20, 1991)

Brief Fact Summary. Father petitioned the court for a reduction in his child support payments after his salary decreased from a job change. The court reduced the payment, and the reduction request was denied on appeal.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The majority and dissent demonstrate two different views on of a voluntary change in job and consequential reduction in salary can amount to a material change warranting a reduction in child support obligation.

Facts. The parties divorced with a property settlement agreement requiring the father to pay monthly support for the parties’ four minor children. The father voluntarily left a salaried management position for a commissioned sales position with another stock broker. The father’s earnings had been projected to be about the same, but the 1987 stock market crash caused his annual income to diminish by approximately $10,000 from his previous earnings. The father filed a petition alleging a material change in his financial circumstances and seeking reduction in his child support obligation. The court reduced the obligation, but on appeal the reduction request was denied.

Issue. Did the court err in refusing to reduce the child support obligation?

Held. The chancellor did not err in determining that the risk of the father’s success at his new job was on the father rather than the children.
Under previous precedent, the father must prove that there is a financial change in circumstances, and that the lack of ability to pay is not due to any voluntary act or neglect. The chancellor determined the father’s change from a management position to a sales position was a voluntary act and a lateral move with similar income potential. The chancellor found that the father accepted the risk involved in being a commissioned stockbroker, and failed to prove that he was entitled to a reduction in the support obligation.

A party seeking a change in court-ordered child support has the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence a material change in circumstances justifying modification of the support requirement. The Court of Appeals incorrectly permitted the father a second opportunity to prove that. The chancellor in his judicial discretion implicitly held that the risk of the father’s success at his new job was on the father rather than the children.

Dissent. A relevant factor in determining allocation of the burden of the father’s reduced income between the father and his children is if the change was based on a reasonable business decision made in good faith. The burden in such cases should be apportioned between the two for two reasons. 1) If the father had been the custodian of the children, they would have shared the benefits and burdens of the risk with their father. 2) If the father’s job change had increased his income, the changed circumstances might authorize an increase in support payments.

Discussion. The majority found that the risk of decreased salary should fall on the father, while the dissent favored apportioning the burden between the father and the children.