By Donald P. Schweitzer and Nitasha Khanna
Public policy requires parents to make child support the top priority of all their financial obligations. California law also provides that children should share in the standard of living of both parents. Furthermore, the Family Code's definition of income available for support is very broad, as it includes "income from any source.” However, there are exceptions to the legal definition of income. One exception is when parents receive occasional monetary gifts and/or inheritance. As illustrated by a recent California appellate court decision, this exception can lead to seemingly inequitable results.
In In Re Marriage of Williamson, the husband (Mr. Williamson) was an heir to a very wealthy family fortune. During their twenty-year marriage, Mr. Williamson and his wife (Mrs. Williamson) lived a high-society lifestyle, due to Mr. Williamson's receiving cash payments from his parents exceeding several million dollars. Mr. Williamson made a modest salary. Anytime the couple needed money, Mr. Williamson would ask his parents and he usually got what he wanted. Consequently, they were accustomed to living in large homes with full-time help, being members of social clubs, driving expensive cars, traveling around the world, and sending their kids to private school.
When the Williamsons’ marriage came to an end, he moved out of the family residence. Ms. Williamson asked for monthly child and spousal support. Mr. Williamson agreed, but insisted that the amount of support be based only on his salary and from a small trust disbursement he received annually from his grandmother. Ms. Williamson disagreed and took the matter to court.
In court, Ms. Williamson argued that she and the children were entitled by law to share in Mr. Williamson’s lifestyle, and asked the judge to consider the monetary gifts Mr. Williamson intermittently received from his parents as income available for support. After all, why should the children have to live in an apartment while their father lived in his parents’ mansion?
Unfortunately for Ms. Williamson, the trial court rejected her argument, and calculated support based only on Mr. Williamson's income from employment and not from the monetary gifts he intermittently received from his parents. The judge was apparently persuaded by Mr. Williamson's father who testified that he did not intend to make any more monetary gifts to Mr. Williamson and refused to pay for Mr. Williamson's future support obligations. Ms. Williamson appealed, but the trial court's ruling was upheld.
The take away: Unless it can be proven that the monetary gifts received by the parties are recurring and the gift giver intends to keep on giving future gifts they will be ignored by the court in its calculation of child and spousal support.