STATE, EX REL. DHS v. Baggett, 88,015.

Citation1999 OK 68,990 P.2d 235
Decision Date13 July 1999
Docket NumberNo. 88,015.,88,015.
PartiesSTATE of Oklahoma, ex rel. DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, ex rel. Jennifer JONES now Decker, Appellee, v. Bryce A. BAGGETT, Jr., Appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma

Kent Whinery, Assistant District Attorney, Sayre, Oklahoma for Appellee.

Bryce A. Baggett, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for Appellant.


¶ 1 On certiorari, the following questions must be answered:

(1) Did the trial court err in entering a judgment ordering appellant, Bryce A. Baggett, Jr.father of child—to reimburse appellee, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), for monies allegedly paid to mother for the support of child under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, without being presented evidence to show the amount of AFDC payments to mother?
(2) Was the trial court required, by the dictates of Oklahoma's child support statutes, to use zero for father's gross monthly income for the purpose of figuring his continuing/future child support obligation because father had no assets, and lacked a present income or real earning capacity due to his incarceration as a prison inmate, or, instead, was it proper for the trial court to attribute to him a gross monthly income for child support purposes based on the minimum wage for a 40 hour work-week?
(3) Was sufficient evidence presented to the trial court to sustain a judgment setting father's continuing/future child support obligation at $109 per month?

¶ 2 We hold: (1) the trial court erred in entering a judgment for AFDC reimbursement without being presented evidence to show the amount of AFDC payments to mother; (2) our child support statutes did not require the trial court to use zero for father's gross monthly income for the purpose of figuring his continuing/future child support obligation — instead, it was proper to attribute to him a gross monthly income based on the minimum wage for a 40 hour work-week; and (3) because under our child support statutes the non-custodial parent's support obligation is based on a formula using the combined gross monthly income of both parents and no evidence was presented to the trial court concerning mother's gross monthly income, there was insufficient evidence presented to the trial court to set father's support obligation at $109 per month.


¶ 3 Child support proceedings are matters of equitable cognizance. Thrash v. Thrash, 1991 OK 32, 809 P.2d 665, 668. On appeal, an appellate court reviews the entire record, weighs the evidence and will affirm a trial court's judgment relating to child support where it is just and equitable. Id. Further, the amount of child support set by a trial court will not be modified or set aside on appeal unless the award is clearly against the weight of the evidence or is somehow unjust and inequitable. Lockhart v. Lockhart, 1996 OK CIV APP 56, 919 P.2d 454, 456.

¶ 4 As to legal issues—e.g. the meaning and intent of legislative enactments—a different standard of review applies. Legal questions are reviewed de novo and an appellate court has plenary, independent, and non-deferential authority to reexamine a trial court's legal rulings. Neil Acquisition, L.L.C., v. Wingrod Investment Corp., 1996 OK 125, 932 P.2d 1100, 1103 fn. 1.


¶ 5 In its trial court petition, DHS alleged the State of Oklahoma had furnished appellant's minor child—a daughter—necessary support under the AFDC program entitling it to judgment against him for $3,161 expended from May 1991 through June 1995, plus amounts accruing to the date of judgment. The petition also requested judgment for continuing—i.e. future—child support in the amount of $109 per month. The factual matters of the petition were verified by the child's mother.

¶ 6 Although not formerly admitted at any in-court proceeding, the trial court record contains an affidavit from mother—filed in the case after the petition, but prior to rendition of the judgment here under review—where she acknowledged that, even though she verified the amount requested in DHS's petition for AFDC reimbursement, in actuality, she did not know whether the amount specified was true and correct.2 In such regard, the affidavit reflects her verification was based on what someone from DHS told her was the correct amount. The affidavit also attests that she and appellant were never married, they lived together for two years before their daughter's birth and for eight months thereafter—until May 10, 1991, apparently the date appellant began his imprisonment.

¶ 7 Appellant, by a second amended answer, admitted the child was his daughter, that he publicly acknowledged her as such since her birth in August 1990, and he admitted the mother's identity. The second amended answer, however, denied the paragraph of DHS's petition that alleged the State had provided support under the AFDC program, demanded strict proof thereof and denied the State was entitled to judgment against him in any amount.3

¶ 8 The trial court record provided to us contains two transcripts of in-court proceedings before the trial judge: the first held in May 1996, the second in June 1996. At the first, in addition to overruling certain motions presented by appellant's counsel, the trial court decided appellant was the father, i.e. determined his paternity. The trial court also orally set temporary child support at $109 per month to begin May 3, 1996 and stated the basis upon which he arrived at the $109 figure. He expressly stated he was attributing to both parents the minimum wage and using the child support guidelines. This amount was set although no evidence or stipulations were submitted concerning the gross monthly incomes of either appellant or mother. The transcript of the May in-court proceeding also shows the trial court was verbally informed by DHS's counsel that the AFDC case had closed in December 1995, i.e. apparently that mother was no longer receiving AFDC payments. The May 1996 proceeding concluded with the trial court informing counsel the matter was set for final determination of child support on June 6, 1996.

¶ 9 At the June 1996 hearing4 certain oral stipulations were entered into by the parties' counsel. However, the stipulations did not encompass all those material factual matters that had been drawn or put at issue by the parties' pleadings. The stipulations were in essence: (1) appellant, since 1991, has been serving the first of three, thirty (30) year consecutive prison sentences in the Oklahoma prison system and (2) he had no present income or assets which could be used to satisfy any child support obligation. No other evidence was presented to the trial court at the June 1996 hearing. In other words, no evidence was presented concerning mother's gross monthly income, nor was any evidence or stipulation(s) presented concerning the fact or amount of any AFDC payments to mother for the benefit of child. The subjects of the mother's gross income and the AFDC payments were not mentioned at the June 1996 in-court proceeding. The June hearing concluded with the trial court informing counsel he would set the amount of child support after reviewing some case law on what support ought to be for a person in appellant's situation, i.e. one who is an incarcerated prison inmate, with no assets or present income.

¶ 10 In July 1996 the judgment was entered. It reiterated the trial judge's earlier oral paternity determination and temporary support order made at the May in-court proceeding; established the $109 per month child support obligation to begin August 1, 1996; and found appellant liable for past due support (i.e. AFDC reimbursement) in the amount of $3,815—to be paid at a rate of $105 per month beginning August 1, 1996. The judgment also set out the judge's view of the impact incarceration had on appellant's child support responsibilities, as follows:

The court is aware that [appellant] has been sentenced to a lengthy prison term. The court has considered two issue[s] that relate to [appellant's] incarceration.
First, as to the issue of arrearage, the court can find no authority that would relieve [appellant] of his obligation to reimburse [the] state for AFDC expended.
Second, as to the issue of what child support ought to be while appellant is in prison, it is the court's opinion that [appellant's] incarceration is his own fault. It would not be equitable to allow [appellant] to be excused from his obligation because of his incarceration. To find that [appellant] did not have to pay child support because he was in prison would be to conclude that he is entitled to have taxpayers support his children because of his criminal acts.

¶ 11 Appellant appealed, challenging both the AFDC reimbursement award and the $109 per month support obligation. The former was attacked on the basis it was entered without the presentation of any evidence to substantiate the amount of AFDC payments allegedly made to mother; the latter as lacking conformity to our child support laws and also suffering from evidentiary deficiency. The COCA affirmed in all respects. Appellant sought certiorari, which we previously granted.


¶ 12 Before a judge may validly decide an issue of fact, his decision, like that of a jury, must be based on competent evidence received during a hearing, or on facts stipulated by the parties. Smith v. Smith, 1992 OK CIV APP 121, 839 P.2d 685, 688; See also Nelson v. Garrett, 201 Okla. 9, 200 P.2d 420, 424 (1948)(in the absence of a trial of fact issues drawn between parties to litigation it is improper for a trial court to render a judgment for or against either party upon such issues). Appellant's second amended answer constituted a denial of DHS's entitlement to an award for AFDC reimbursement in...

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