Middleton v. Middleton, 36

CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland
Citation329 Md. 627,620 A.2d 1363
Docket NumberNo. 36,36
PartiesCrystal R. MIDDLETON v. Brian K. MIDDLETON. ,
Decision Date01 September 1992

Page 627

329 Md. 627
620 A.2d 1363
No. 36, Sept. Term, 1992.
Court of Appeals of Maryland.
March 16, 1993.

Page 628

Jane C. Murphy (Carolyn W. Evans, and Cynthia Dietz, Student Attys., on brief), Baltimore, for appellant.

Jill Coleman, amicus curiae, for Organization for the Enforcement of Child Support, Inc.

Karen R. Johnson (C. Christopher Brown, Brown, Goldstein & Levy, on brief), Baltimore, for appellee.


[620 A.2d 1364]

Page 629


The issue presented in this case is whether Maryland Constitution, Article III, § 38, 1 prohibits use of civil contempt to enforce a defaulting parent's court decreed child support obligation when the accrued arrearages have been reduced to judgment. The answer lies in the historical evolution of § 38 and case law.


In Brown v. Brown, 287 Md. 273, 412 A.2d 396 (1980), we considered the purpose of § 38 and of its various amendments to that time. As originally enacted, the Brown Court pointed out, "the provision simply read 'No person shall be imprisoned for debt' " and it continued in that form for nearly one hundred years. Id. at 277, n. 2, 412 A.2d at 398 n. 2. By amendment in 1950, there was excluded from the prohibition "a valid decree of a court of competent jurisdiction or agreement approved by decree of said court for the support of a wife or dependent children or for alimony." Id. The 1962 amendment added to the exclusion "the support of an illegitimate child or children". Id. These amendments, in effect, modified the meaning of debt, as the courts had defined that term, id. at 281-282, 412 A.2d at 401, making uniform the treatment of "alimony ..., wife support and the support of dependent children...." Id. at 282, 412 A.2d at 401.

Stating that "[t]he evident purpose of the framers was to abolish the useless, and sometimes cruel, imprisonment of

Page 630

persons who, having honestly become indebted to another, were unable to pay as promised," id. at 279-280, 412 A.2d at 400 (footnote omitted), citing State v. Mace, 5 Md. 337, 351 (1854), the Court noted that, early on a distinction was drawn "between 'debt' within the meaning of Section 38, and a legal 'duty' arising from or imposed by law," id., 287 Md. at 280, 412 A.2d at 400, the latter not being subject to the prohibition. Ruggles v. State, 120 Md. 553, 564, 87 A. 1080, 1084 (1913); State v. Nicholson, 67 Md. 1, 4-5, 8 A. 817, 818 (1887); Mace, 5 Md. at 350-351. The debt/duty dichotomy's application in the domestic context was traced from Dickey v. Dickey, 154 Md. 675, 141 A. 387 (1928), through the 1962 amendment. Id. 287 Md. at 280-282, 412 A.2d at 400-01. The Brown court, discussing Dickey, noted that alimony was determined to be a "duty growing out of the marital relation and resting upon a sound public policy, and so ... may be enforced by attachment of the person for contempt, and the defendant ... imprisoned." Id. at 280-281, 412 A.2d at 400 (quoting Dickey, 154 Md. at 681, 141 A. at 390.) "On the other hand, wife support, contractually assented to upon dissolution of the marriage," was accorded a less favored status. Id. 287 Md. at 281, 412 A.2d at 400. Child support also received, before the constitutional amendment of 1950, a different, less favorable treatment, in terms of the § 38 prohibition, than did alimony. Id.

As indicated, the 1950 amendment had the effect of treating spousal support, alimony and child support the same for § 38 purposes. The Court opined that "what was sought to be and actually was, accomplished by the amendment was permission to enforce by imprisonment, if need be, the legal and moral obligation of support (when expressed in an equity decree) that parents owe to their children." Id. at 283, 412 A.2d at 401.

At issue in Brown, was whether a stepfather could be held in contempt for failure to support his stepdaughter after he had been divorced from her mother. The issue arose because the stepfather had executed a separation agreement requiring him to [620 A.2d 1365] pay a specific amount for the

Page 631

stepdaughter's support. Defining a dependent child as "an immediate offspring," id. at 284, 412 A.2d at 402 (quoting Billingsly v. Bradley, 166 Md. 412, 419, 171 A. 351, 354 (1934)), i.e., "one who is entitled to support by virtue of a legal duty from another to provide it, independent of contract, without regard to whether the provisions of that agreement are incorporated into a judicial decree," id. 287 Md. at 283, 412 A.2d at 402, we held that contempt was not an available option. The Court concluded that any obligation of a stepfather to support a stepchild is contractual and, therefore, stands on a different footing from that of a father, whose obligation is a noncontractual duty to support his natural or adopted child. Id. at 284, 412 A.2d at 402. Consequently, we said, even though a valid court decree or agreement approved by decree for support of a dependent child is not a debt under section § 38, a contractual or decretal obligation accepted by a stepparent to support a stepchild is not an obligation to support a dependent child. Id. at 285-286, 412 A.2d at 403.


We have consistently held, both before 1950, Kriedo v. Kriedo, 159 Md. 229-231, 150 A. 720, 721 (1930); Blades v. Szatai, 151 Md. 644, 647, 135 A. 841, 842 (1927), and after, Carroll County v. Edelmann, 320 Md. 150, 170, 577 A.2d 14, 23 (1990), Knill v. Knill, 306 Md. 527, 531, 510 A.2d 546, 548 (1986); Bledsoe v. Bledsoe, 294 Md. 183, 193, 448 A.2d 353, 358-59 (1982); Kerr v. Kerr, 287 Md. 363, 367-368, 412 A.2d 1001, 1004 (1980); Brown v. Brown, 287 Md. 273, 281, 412 A.2d 396, 400 (1980); Rand v. Rand, 280 Md. 508, 510, 374 A.2d 900, 902 (1977); Speckler v. Speckler, 256 Md. 635, 637, 261 A.2d 466, 467; Johnson v. Johnson, 241 Md. 416, 419, 216 A.2d 914, 916 (1966); Bradford v. Futrell, 225 Md. 512, 518, 171 A.2d 493, 496, (1961); McCabe v. McCabe, 210 Md. 308, 314, 123 A.2d 447, 450 (1956), that a father has a common law duty to support his minor children. A mother has the same duty. Edelmann, 320 Md. at 170, 577 A.2d at 23; Kerr, 287 Md. at 367-368, 412 A.2d at 1004.

Page 632

The source of the child support obligation has been variously described. In Blades, we said

[t]he liability of the decedent for the support of his son is not founded on any contract, expressed or implied. It is simply a natural and legal duty, which is imposed on any father who brings a child into the world. When the court ... gave the custody of the lad to the father, it simply continued by implication that general duty. The obligation under the decree is still a personal one, and does not constitute a debt of the parent.

151 Md. at 654, 135 A. at 845 (emphasis added). In Kriedo, we recognized that

[t]he implied obligation on the part of the father to pay for necessaries for the support of a minor child ... aris[es] by reason of the duty and obligation imposed upon the father by law to provide properly and reasonably for the support of minor children, according to their station in life and the financial ability of the father.

159 Md. at 232, 150 A. at 721-22. Yet another formulation is contained in Edelmann:

Parenthood is both a biological and a legal status. By nature and by law, it confers rights and imposes duties. One of the most basic of these is the obligation of the parent to support the child until the law determines that he is able to care for himself. As it is the obligation of the parent to provide the support, so it is the right of the child to expect it....

The duty of parents to provide for the maintenance of their children is a principle of natural law; an obligation ... laid on them not only by nature herself, but by their own proper act, in bringing them into this world.... By begetting them, therefore, they have entered into a voluntary obligation.... And thus the children have the perfect right of receiving maintenance from their parents.

320 Md. at 170, 577 A.2d at 23-24 (quoting 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries 447).

[620 A.2d 1366]

Page 633

Maryland Code (1991) § 5-203(b)(1) of the Family Law Article provides that parents "are jointly and severally responsible for the child's support, care, nurture, welfare, and education...." That provision, reflective of the common law, Zouck v. Zouck, 204 Md. 285, 298, 104 A.2d 573, 579 (1954), originally was enacted by the legislature in 1929, as Article 72A, § 1, of Bagby Annotated Code of Maryland. See Ch. 561, Laws of 1929. As originally enacted, Article 72A, § 1 charged both parents with the "care, nurture, welfare and education" of their minor child. Their responsibilities, "jointly and severally," for the support of that child were mandated when the section was amended by Ch. 678, Laws of 1951. Thus, since at least 1951, the child support obligation of a parent has been a " 'legal duty arising from or imposed by law.' " Mace, 5 Md. at 351. The obligation is not perfunctory, to be performed only at the voluntary pleasure or whimsical desire of the parent, Palmer v. State, 223 Md. 341, 351, 164 A.2d 467, 473 (1960), and it cannot be escaped even though the child is illegitimate. Commonwealth of Virginia v. Autry, 293 Md. 53, 61, 441 A.2d 1056, 1060 (1982). Moreover, the Legislature has made it a misdemeanor for "a parent ... willfully [to] fail to provide for the support of his or her minor child." See Maryland Code (1991) § 10-203 of the Family Law Article. Failure to provide child support as decreed may also be enforced by contempt. Rutherford v. Rutherford, 296 Md. 347, 364, 464 A.2d 228, 237 (1983); Speckler, 256 Md. at 637, 261 A.2d at 467; Johnson v. Johnson, 241 Md. 416, 419, 216 A.2d 914, 916 (1966).


It is the substance of the obligation that the monetary claim represents, not the form that it takes, that is dispositive. 2 In Zouck, 204 Md. at 298-299, 104...

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