Belt v. Chambers, 674-2019

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtLeahy, J.
Docket Number674-2019
Decision Date23 August 2022



No. 674-2019

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

August 23, 2022

Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. 02-C-01-075515

Wells, C.J. Leahy, Eyler, Deborah S. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


Leahy, J.

Appellant Tariq Liyuen Belt ("Father") and appellee Lanitra Chambers ("Mother") are the parents of one child ("Daughter"), who was born in 1996. Father appeals from an order of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County denying his motion to modify his child support to eliminate arrearages that accrued during his incarceration.

In June 2005, shortly before he was convicted, Father ceased making child support payments. Unpaid child support obligations accrued from that time until December 2014, when Daughter reached her 18th birthday and the order for child support terminated by operation of law.[1] Father was released from prison in September 2017. At the time of his release, Father owed $70,148.61 in child support arrears.

In 2018, Father filed a pro se motion to modify child support in which he requested that the court either reduce or void the child support arrearages that had accrued while he was incarcerated and had no source of income. The court denied the motion. Father noted this timely appeal.

While Father's appeal was pending, this Court issued its decision in Damon v. Robles, holding that section 12-104.1 of the Family Law Article ("FL"), Maryland Code (2012 Repl. Vol),[2] effective October 1, 2012, operated to automatically prevent arrearages


from accruing during incarceration, and did not require a motion for modification of child support due to a lack of income. 245 Md.App. 233, 247 (2020). We also clarified that there is "a vested right" in child support payments between the time of the support order and the effective date of the statute of October 1, 2012 and that "the right to [those] payments could not be taken away." Id. Accordingly, appellee, Anne Arundel County Office of Child Support (the "Office"), sent a letter to Father advising him that, in accordance with this Court's opinion in Damon, child support arrears that had accrued in this case after October 1, 2012 were administratively suspended, and Father's arrears were correspondingly reduced.

For the reasons explained below, we reverse the circuit court's judgment denying Father's motion for modification because, as both parties agree, he was entitled to the modification of his child support arrears under FL § 12-104.1. We agree with the court's determination, however, that he is not entitled to a retroactive reduction in the amount of child support that accrued prior to October 1, 2012. Accordingly, although we reverse the judgment of the circuit court, the reduction of the child support arrears to which Father is entitled was rendered moot when the Office reduced the amount of child support accrued after October 1, 2012. We remand to the circuit court for entry of an order reflecting the modification to which Father was entitled.


Mother filed a complaint for custody and child support against Father in 2001. On April 5, 2002, the court ordered, among other things, that Mother have custody of Daughter and that Father pay pendente lite child support to Mother in the amount of $130.00 per


week, effective March 1, 2002. A few weeks later, the court held a hearing to set child support at which Mother appeared, but Father failed to appear. On May 29, 2002, the court entered an order directing Father to "continue to pay to [Mother] the sum of $130 per week as child support" through the Office,[3] and Mother to "promptly apply" to the Office "with regard to further establishment and collection of support for the minor child." The case then was administratively closed.

In August 2003, Father was arrested on federal charges. He was convicted in December 2005 and sentenced to 18 years and six months in prison. In June 2005, shortly before he was convicted, Father ceased making child support payments. As previously noted, Father's unpaid child support obligations accrued from that time until December 2014, when Daughter reached her 18th birthday, and the order for child support terminated by operation of law.

Motion to Modify

On June 4, 2018, after Father was released from prison, he filed a motion to modify child support to either reduce or eliminate the child support arrearages that accrued during his incarceration based, in part, on his inability to work. Father also requested credit for payments made directly to Mother and Daughter. Father filed an amended motion to modify support, which, while largely identical to Father's initial motion, also attached a


letter to his bank requesting a refund for certain fees that he incurred when his account was garnished.[4]

Modification Hearing

A hearing on Father's motion to modify child support was held before a magistrate on March 14, 2019. Father and Mother appeared as self-represented litigants. Counsel for the Office was present and participated in the hearing.

Father testified that he was arrested in August 2003. While awaiting trial, Father was first "sent to a halfway house" and was later placed on house arrest. During that time, he was not permitted to work. He was convicted, and, in December 2005, he was sentenced to a term of 18 years and six months.

Father claimed that, at some point in either 2006 or 2008, he filed a motion or written request with the court asking that child support be modified due to his incarceration. Father did not have a copy of the document that he claimed to have filed, and the magistrate found no such request in the court file.

Father testified that, while he was incarcerated, he sent money directly to Mother and Daughter. Father submitted documentation showing that, from October 2015 to January 2017, he electronically transferred a total of $3,675 to Mother and Daughter. Father stated that his family had also sent money to Mother, but he produced no evidence regarding such payments.


Mother and Daughter testified that all but $1,200 of the money that Father sent while he was in prison was either used to purchase clothing and other items for Father, at Father's request, or was transferred to a third party, at Father's direction, "in connection" with Father's "business" as a "jailhouse lawyer." Mother denied receiving any money from Father's family.

Sharon Roussillon, a child support case specialist, testified that the Office was notified in January 2006 that Father was incarcerated. At that time, the Office "entered an administrative close code" which "stops any notifications to the non-custodial parent regarding child support," but does not stop child support from accruing. She explained that Father's child support obligations continued to accrue monthly until Daughter's 18th birthday.

Ms. Roussillon testified that Father notified the Office of his release on September 27, 2017, and the case was returned to active status. She explained that Father was under an order to pay $32.50 per week toward arrearages and had been making payments on the arrears "steadily" since August 2018. She calculated that, at the time of the modification hearing, Father owed $68,749.42 in child support arrearages.

After Ms. Roussillon's testimony, the magistrate heard closing argument. Father argued that his child support obligation should not have continued to accrue after the Office became aware of his incarceration. Counsel for the Office argued that Father was not entitled to relief because he did not file a motion for modification until July 2018, by which time the child support order had terminated, and the law did not permit retroactive modification prior to the filing of the motion. In addition, counsel argued that FL § 12-104.1


was not applicable to Father's case because the order for child support was issued prior to the effective date of the statute. The magistrate held the matter under advisement.

Magistrate's Findings and Recommendations

On March 25, 2019, the magistrate issued a written report and recommendation. The magistrate concluded that FL § 12-104.1 was applicable to an order for child support entered prior to the effective date of the statute, and, therefore, as of October 1, 2012, no child support was due in Father's case, and arrearages did not continue to accrue. The magistrate further concluded that the statute of limitations barred recovery of any outstanding payments that became due more than 12 years prior to the date of the modification hearing. Finally, the magistrate found that Father was entitled to a credit of $1,200 for payments made directly to Mother and Daughter while he was incarcerated.

The magistrate summarized his findings and recommendation, stating:

[Father's] child support arrearage owed to [Mother] is only for the period from . . . March 14, 2007 through September 30, 2012. During this period and at the rate of $130 per week, [Father] should have paid the sum of $37,848.57 in child support. With [Father] having made payments during this time through [the Office] in the amount of $1,399.29 plus additional payments that total $1,200 directly made to [Mother and Daughter], [Father's] currently outstanding arrearage is $35,249.28 as of the date of the hearing.

The Office and Mother filed exceptions to the magistrate's findings. They averred, among other things, that the magistrate's findings were "clearly erroneous" in that (1) the magistrate "retroactively modified the support order"; (2) FL § 12-104.1 did not apply


retroactively to the 2002 child support order; and (3) the statute of limitations was not a proper basis upon which to modify child support arrearages. [5]

Father excepted to the finding that he did not file a motion to modify prior to July 2018. He claimed that, in correspondence filed with...

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