Citation813 A.2d 334,148 Md. App. 550
Decision Date23 December 2002
Docket NumberNo. 1754,1754
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Barbara Strong Goss, Assistant Attorney General(J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General, on the brief), Baltimore, for appellants.

No brief or appearance by appellee's counsel.


KENNEY, Judge.

The Anne Arundel County Domestic Relations Division ("DRD") appeals the decision of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, which voided the child support obligation of appellee, Daniel Shehan, because he cohabitated with the child's mother, Vickie Garland Goddard, after the child support order was issued. Neither Shehan nor Goddard individually has participated in this appeal. DRD poses two questions on appeal, which we have consolidated into one:

I. Did the circuit court err in holding that cohabitation of unmarried parents renders null and void support orders and any agreement reaffirming the unmarried father's duty to support premised upon a finding of paternity? For the reasons below, we shall reverse the decision of the circuit court.

Factual and Procedural History

Goddard and Shehan lived together in Maryland and are the parents of Carly Shehan (the "child"), the oldest of the couple's three children. The child was born on July 9, 1985. Because of continuing difficulties in their relationship, Goddard planned to move to Connecticut to reside with her sister. On January 23, 1986, Goddard filed a paternity petition against Shehan regarding the child.

Shortly thereafter, on March 4, 1986, Shehan signed an agreement (the "Agreement") admitting paternity. The Agreement provided that Shehan's child support would continue until the child "becomes 18 years of age, dies, marries, or becomes self-supporting, whichever event occurs first." It also noted that Shehan was "unemployed and has agreed that this matter is to be reviewed in six weeks for a specific amount of support." Although Goddard and Shehan were then living together, Goddard informed DRD that they lived apart.

On May 12, 1986, Goddard and Shehan signed a consent order, pursuant to which Shehan agreed to pay child support to DRD in the amount of $25.00 per week for the child and to inform the agency of his whereabouts.1 At that time, he believed that "things were going to be over" between them.

Approximately two weeks after the consent order was signed, Goddard moved to Connecticut. On June 21, 1986, Goddard gave birth to the couple's second child. Shortly thereafter, she informed Shehan about the birth. He then moved to Connecticut and lived with Goddard. Although the record is unclear, Shehan testified that, from 1986 through the "next 11 or 12 years," appellant moved back and forth between Maryland and Connecticut, where he resided with Goddard. During Shehan's periodic stays in Connecticut, which are not detailed in the record, Goddard became pregnant with the couple's third child, who was born on January 24, 1992.2 Shehan made no child support payments and did not inform DRD of his periodic stays in Connecticut. DRD filed a petition requesting that Shehan be found in contempt.

According to Shehan, from 1986 until 1998, he provided "a little more than" $25.00 per week for child support and also contributed to the rent. Shehan testified that Goddard left Connecticut and moved to Tennessee in 1998. The accuracy of that testimony, however, was disputed at oral argument by DRD's statement that sometime during 1995, Goddard married and was living in Tennessee and that, in about 1994, Shehan married and was living in Maryland.

There is no evidence in the record that Goddard personally sought enforcement of the child support order. Because DRD had not received child support payments since the parties executed the Agreement, it notified Shehan in February 2000 that it would suspend his driver's license. In response, Shehan entered into an arrearages payment schedule requiring him to pay $25.00 per week for child support and $25.00 per week toward the arrearages. Shehan also made an initial payment of $100.00 to DRD.

When Goddard received a copy of the notice to suspend Shehan's driver's license, she telephoned DRD on March 21, 2000; the substance of that conversation is not part of the record. Shehan did not pay the child support payments last agreed to and, on September 28, 2000, the circuit court again ordered that Shehan pay $25.00 per week for child support and also pay $25.00 per week toward the arrearages. At that point, Shehan informed DRD that he and Goddard had lived together in Connecticut for twelve years.

Because Shehan did not make any further payments, DRD initiated contempt proceedings in October 2000, pursuant to Md.Code (1984, 1999 Repl.Vol.), § 5-1041 of the Family Law Article ("FL"). On October 12, 2000, the circuit court issued a show cause order requiring Shehan to explain why he should not be held in contempt for not paying his child support.3 On November 30, 2000, Shehan failed to appear for the contempt hearing and the court issued a bench warrant setting bond in the amount of $18,500.

The circuit court issued a second show cause order on December 15, 2000, requiring Shehan to appear before a special master on January 11, 2001. At that hearing, the contempt case was continued and set for review in April 2001. Goddard apparently was made aware of the proceeding by a letter sent by Shehan's counsel, which requested that she relinquish any claim to child support. Goddard did not consent to that request.

On April 12, 2001, the contempt hearing was continued to May 2001. At that time, Shehan owed more than $19,000. Four days later, Shehan filed a motion to terminate the child support order and dismiss the arrearages. On May 7, 2001, a hearing was held before a special master. Goddard did not receive notification of that hearing and therefore did not attend. During that hearing, the master stated:

[T]hat raises an interesting question which I have some reservation or thoughts about. DRD does not represent [Goddard]. They enforce support orders. Is [Goddard] even a party to this particular proceeding, and to any decision I make today, and recommend and sign off by a Judge? Does that bind her, as she is not here?

Despite a concern that Goddard was not present, the master made the following findings and conclusions:

The parties' second child was born on 21 June 1986. Shortly thereafter [Shehan] moved to Connecticut to live with [Goddard] and the two children and they lived thereafter as a family. [Shehan] provided all of the support for [Goddard] and the children, and his financial support of [the child] exceeded $25 per week. In 1998 [Goddard] took all of the parties' belongings, left with the children and moved to Tennessee. [Shehan] then returned to Maryland. [Shehan] has not seen the children since the separation and only recently learned of their actual location.

* * *

There is no question but that the resumption of cohabitation by the parties for some 12 years was a bona fide reconciliation. Therefore, the 1986 support order was nullified upon the parties' reconciliation in Connecticut. And as acknowledged by DRD's counsel,4 as there was no valid support order in place, the Consent order of 15 September 2000 is void nunc pro tunc.

4 It is, therefore, not necessary to address the issue of [Shehan's] right to a set off for the support he actually provided [the child] during the period of cohabitaion. Coffman v. Hayes, 259 Md. 708, 270 A.2d 808 (1970); Smith v. Smith, 79 Md.App. 650, 558 A.2d 798 (1989).

The master recommended that Shehan not be held in contempt and that the court void the 1986 child support order and the subsequent order regarding Shehan's arrearages. DRD filed timely exceptions to the master's findings and recommendations.

On August 22, 2001, the circuit court held a hearing on the exceptions. Again, Goddard was not notified, was not present at the hearing, was not represented by counsel, and did not have an opportunity to contest Shehan's testimony.

On September 12, 2001, the court ratified the master's recommendations, issuing an order not holding Shehan in contempt and ordering that the "Consent order of Modification entered 12 May 1986 is void; and the Consent Order entered 28 September 2000 is void." This appeal was filed on October 4, 2001.

Standard of Review

Review by [an appellate court] involves interpreting whether the circuit court's order was legally correct. While child support orders are generally within the sound discretion of the trial court, see Beckman v. Boggs, 337 Md. 688, 703, 655 A.2d 901, 908 (1995) (discussing the circuit court's discretion in family matters, with specific reference to visitation orders); Giffin v. Crane, 351 Md. 133, 144, 716 A.2d 1029, 1035 (1998) (reviewing the lower court's determination of custody); Early v. Early, 338 Md. 639, 654, 659 A.2d 1334, 1341 (1995) (reviewing the circuit court's child support order), not to be disturbed unless there has been a clear abuse of discretion, where the order involves an interpretation and application of Maryland statutory and case law, our Court must determine whether the lower court's conclusions are "legally correct" under a de novo standard of review. See In re Mark M., 365 Md. 687, 782 A.2d 332 (2001) (reviewing a trial court's visitation order de novo when the issue involved whether the order itself constituted an improper delegation of judicial authority).

Walter v. Gunter, 367 Md. 386, 391-92, 788 A.2d 609 (2002).


DRD argues that the circuit court exceeded its statutory authority by ruling that the cohabitation of Shehan and Goddard voided the child support order. DRD acknowledged, however, during oral argument that it was not opposed to providing Shehan a set-off for the child support that he paid while he resided with Goddard in Connecticut.

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    ...whether the lower court's conclusions are `legally correct' under a de novo standard of review." Child Support Enforcement Admin. v. Shehan, 148 Md. App. 550, 556, 813 A.2d 334 (2002). I. Grow's Actual Walker argues first that the circuit court erred in computing Grow's actual income by fai......
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    ...way reasonably relied on the payee parent's representations or conduct. General equity cases include Child Support Enforcement Admin. v. Shehan (2002) 148 Md.App. 550, 561–562, 813 A.2d 334 [father allowed on remand to show he discharged his support obligation during the period of cohabitio......
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