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Hendren v. Alaska Child Support Enforcement Div. (4/10/98), 957 P 2d 1350
Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in
the Pacific Reporter. Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of
the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, phone
(907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878.
THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA
DAVID K. HENDREN, )
) Supreme Court No. S-7856
) Superior Court No.
v. ) 4FA-90-2118 CI
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT ) O P I N I O N
OF REVENUE, CHILD SUPPORT )
ENFORCEMENT DIVISION, ) [No. 4967 - April 10, 1998]
Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of
Alaska, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks,
Richard D. Savell, Judge.
Appearances: Michael A. MacDonald, Downes,
MacDonald & Levengood, P.C., Fairbanks, for Appellant. Scott
Davis, Assistant Attorney General, Fairbanks, and Bruce M. Botelho,
Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.
Before: Matthews, Chief Justice, Compton,
Eastaugh, Fabe, and Bryner, Justices.
This appeal involves an action for reimbursement of child
support brought pursuant to AS 25.27.120(a) by the Child Support
Enforcement Division (CSED) against David Hendren. David argues
that the trial court erred in granting CSED's motion for
reimbursement because, under the terms of the child support order,
he is not liable as a matter of law for public assistance to his
daughter. We agree.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
David Hendren and Vallrie Hendren married in July 1983
and had two children, Renee, born in July 1983, and Jennifer, born
in August 1984. [Fn. 1] In January 1991 the superior court granted
the Hendrens' petition for dissolution of marriage and entered a
child custody and support order. The order awarded David legal and
physical custody of the children and provided that Vallrie was to
pay $50 a month in child support. The trial court had not modified
this order as of the date of this appeal.
In January 1994 David, who lives in Fairbanks, sent Renee
to live with her Aunt Elsie in Tanacross. In May 1994 he agreed to
allow Renee to live with Vallrie, who also resides in Tanacross.
David claims that beginning in January 1994 he gave, first to Aunt
Elsie and later to Vallrie, $300 a month along with food and
clothing for Renee's support. According to David, Renee left
Vallrie's home in January 1996. Renee apparently returned to her
Aunt Elsie and has lived with her until the present.
Vallrie received Aid to Families with Dependent Children
(AFDC) grant payments for Renee from May 1994, the month Renee
moved in with her, until March 1996. According to CSED, these
payments totaled $9,735. David denies knowledge of these payments,
alleging that Vallrie assured him that she was not receiving public
assistance for Renee and that CSED gave him no notice of the
payments until October 1995.
In May 1996, three months after Vallrie had ceased to
receive AFDC payments for Renee, CSED moved for reimbursement from
David of the AFDC grants. David opposed the motion.
Judge Richard D. Savell granted CSED's motion for
reimbursement of past public assistance and entered judgment for
$9,735 against David in August 1996. After the court denied
David's motion for reconsideration, he filed this appeal.
A. Standard of Review
We review de novo the question of whether the trial court
properly entered judgment against David pursuant to AS 25.27.120(a)
because this question raises issues of statutory interpretation.
See Boone v. Gipson, 920 P.2d 746, 748 (Alaska 1996). In
interpreting a statute, we will adopt the rule of law which is most
persuasive in light of precedent, reason and policy. Id.
B. Is David as the Custodial Parent under the Current
Support Order Liable to CSED for Past Child Support?
Under the court's child custody and support order, David
is the legal custodian of his daughter Renee, and Vallrie is
obligated to pay David $50 per month in child support. The issue
before us is whether David can be held liable to CSED for AFDC
payments made to Vallrie for Renee from May 1994 through March
1996, the months in which CSED claims Renee lived with her mother.
CSED's right to obtain reimbursement from a parent for
public assistance paid to support the parent's child stems from AS
25.27.120(a), which provides in relevant part:
An obligor is liable to the state in the
amount of assistance granted under AS 47.07 and AS 47.25.310-
47.25.420 to a child to whom the obligor owes a duty of support
except that, if a support order has been entered, the liability of
the obligor for assistance granted under AS 47.25.310-47.25.420 may
not exceed the amount of support provided for in the support order
. . . .
Under the plain language of the statute, only the obligor is liable
to the state for the amount of assistance granted. The 1991 child
custody and support order, however, explicitly provides that
Vallrie, not David, is the obligor. The order states "[t]he
Obligor, Vallrie Hendren, shall pay child support in the amount of
$50.00 for two children per month."
CSED argues that David should reimburse the state for
AFDC payments made to Vallrie for Renee even though he is not the
obligor under the support order issued by the trial court. CSED
points to AS 25.27.900(6), which defines an obligor as "a person
owing a duty of support." According to CSED's interpretation of
this provision, the duty of support need not arise from a child
support order but can arise from common law. CSED cites Matthews
v. Matthews, 739 P.2d 1298 (Alaska 1987) as establishing a parent's
common law duty to support his or her children. Because of this
common law duty, CSED claims that David satisfies the definition of
obligor. It therefore reasons that it can obtain reimbursement
from David under AS 25.27.120(a).
We reject for three reasons CSED's argument that AS
25.27.120(a) requires parents to reimburse the state based on their
common law duty of support. First, the language of AS 25.27.120(a)
does not support CSED's interpretation. Second, CSED's
interpretation of AS 25.27.120(a) would render it inconsistent with
other statutory provisions governing the power of CSED. Third,
CSED's interpretation of the reimbursement provision is
inconsistent with Alaska Civil Rule 90.3(h)(2).
Generally, the most reliable guide to the meaning of a
statute is its words construed in accordance with their common
usage. See Homer Elec. Ass'n v. Towsley, 841 P.2d 1042, 1043-44
(Alaska 1992). Because AS 25.27.120(a) limits the obligor's
liability to the amount of support required by the support order,
the language of the provision identifies the obligor as the parent
who has been ordered to pay child support by a court. See AS
25.27.120(a) (stating "An obligor is liable to the state in the
amount of assistance granted . . . except that . . . the liability
of the obligor . . . may not exceed the amount of support provided
for in the support order . . . ."). In this case, Vallrie, not
David, was ordered to pay child support of $50 per month under the
order entered in January 1991. This order remains unmodified. As
a result, it is Vallrie, not David, who is the obligor within the
plain meaning of AS 25.27.120(a).
We also reject CSED's interpretation of AS 25.27.120(a)
because it creates inconsistency in the statutory scheme governing
the power of CSED. "It is an established principle of statutory
construction that all sections of an act are to be construed
together so that all have meaning and no section conflicts with
another." Matter of Estate of Hutchinson, 577 P.2d 1074, 1075
(Alaska 1978). CSED's interpretation does not comply with this
principle because it would permit retroactive modifications of
prior support orders in violation of the bar on such modifications
implicit in our statutory system.
CSED correctly states in its brief that the trial
court's order requiring David to reimburse the state "in essence
constitutes a child support award." Because the January 1991 order
has never been modified, requiring David to reimburse CSED for past
assistance constitutes a retroactive modification of the original
Although CSED can seek the modification of existing
support orders under AS 25.27.045, the statutory scheme permits
retroactive modification only in limited circumstances.
Retroactive modification is explicitly permitted by the statute
when paternity is disestablished and the modification can be
implemented without violating federal law, see AS 25.27.045, or on
the motion of the obligor when there is a clerical mistake or the
support order is based on a default amount. See AS 25.27.195. The
implication of these sections is that, except in these defined
circumstances, courts may not retroactively modify support orders.
CSED's interpretation of AS 25.27.120(a) is therefore incorrect
because it would permit such modifications, like the reimbursement
award in this case, in circumstances in which retroactive
modification is not permitted.
Finally, CSED's interpretation of the reimbursement
provision would allow the state to obtain retroactive modifications
of support orders even in situations when a child's parent could
not obtain a modification under Civil Rule 90.3(h)(2). This result
is inconsistent with the principle of statutory interpretation that
requires two statutes dealing with the same subject matter to be
construed "as harmoniously as possible." Borg-Warner Corp. v. Avco
Corp., 850 P.2d 628, 633-34 (Alaska 1993).
Civil Rule 90.3(h)(2) governs parties' rights to obtain
modifications of child custody and support orders; therefore, it
deals with the same subject matter as the statutory scheme
governing CSED. The Rule provides that "[c]hild support arrearage
may not be modified retroactively, except as allowed by [statute]."
Under the Rule, if Vallrie were to now seek a modification of the
January 1991 order, she would be unable to obtain child support
funds from David retroactively for the months when she had physical
custody of Renee. Adhering to the principle that we must be
consistent in construing statutes on similar subjects, we conclude
that CSED should not be able to obtain these funds from David under
We conclude that the trial court misinterpreted AS
25.27.120(a) when it allowed CSED to obtain reimbursement from
David for AFDC funds paid to Vallrie. The term "obligor"in AS
25.27.120(a) refers to the parent who is required to pay child
support under a court order. Vallrie, not David, is the obligor
under the support order entered by the trial court in January
1991, which remains unmodified. As a result, David is not liable
to the state for public assistance paid to Vallrie for Renee. The
decision of the trial court is therefore REVERSED. [Fn. 2] In the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska
David K. Hendren, )
) Supreme Court No. S-07856
v. ) Order
State of Alaska, Department of Revenue, )
Child Support Enforcement Division, )
Appellee. ) Date of Order: 4/10/98
Trial Court Case # 4FA-90-02118CI
Before: Matthews, Chief Justice, Compton, Eastaugh, Fabe and Bryner, Justices.
On consideration of the petition for rehearing, filed on February 9, 1998, and the response and
supplement to the response, accepted on March 13, 1998,
It is Ordered:
1. The petition for rehearing is DENIED in part and GRANTED to the following extent:
Opinion No. 4941 is modified by the deletion of the two-sentence paragraph beginning at the bottom
of Page 7.
2. Opinion No. 4941 published on January 30, 1998, is accordingly WITHDRAWN and
Opinion No. 4967 is issued today in its place.
Entered at the direction of the Court.
CLERK OF THE APPELLATE COURTS
Trinidad Whitman, Deputy Clerk
Supreme Court Justices
Michael A. MacDonald
Downes MacDonald & Levengood, P C
1008 16th Avenue, Suite 200
Fairbanks AK 99701
D. Scott Davis
Asst Attorney General
100 Cushman Street #400
Fairbanks AK 99701
Jennifer died in 1992.
David raised other issues
in his appeal regarding the
size of the reimbursement
award. Because we agree with
David's preliminary argument
that he is not liable, as a
matter of law, to CSED under AS
25.27.120(a), we do not reach
these other issues.