Did a Texas man go to jail for paying too much child support? (Answer: probably not.)

A story about a father in Houston who went to jail for contempt of court, despite allegedly paying more child support than he had to, has been going viral over the past few days.  But according to the invaluable snopes.com, the real story is much more complicated:

The crux of the matter seems to be that (as maintained by Hall) a court agreement specifying child support and visitation terms was modified without his knowledge, resulting in his underpaying child support and taking custody of his son outside of the court-approved visitation schedule. When Hall found out about the modified terms, in order to avoid jail time he quickly paid nearly $3,000 in back child support (despite, he claims, having been told during a court appearance several weeks earlier that he was all paid up) and agreed to pay the child’s mother $3,000 in attorney’s fees (which she presumably incurred in bringing the issue of his non-compliance with the agreement to court).

So, based on Hall’s side of the story, he was unaware that the amount of child support he was required to pay had been increased, he had recently been told in court that he didn’t owe any back child support, and when he found out he did indeed owe outstanding child support he hastened to pay it in full. Nonetheless, Judge Lisa Millard found Hall in contempt of court and sentenced him to 180 days in county jail for some combination of his failure to pay required child support on time, his failure to follow the court’s scheduled visitation times with his son, and/or his walking out of the courtroom in the middle of a hearing. (News accounts are still murky about which of these factors was the basis for the sentence, but a court document briefly glimpsed in the Houston television news report about the case shown above displays a header indicating Hall was held in contempt for “for failure to pay child support.”)

However, nothing presented in the original KRIV-TV news account about this case actually stated that Hall “overpaid” child support; it quite clearly said that he paid nearly $3,000 in “back child support,” indicating that he was paying an amount already past due (even if he was previously unaware he owed it), not overpaying an amount he didn’t yet owe. And it seems that the basis of the contempt charge was Hall’s failure to pay the required amount of child support on time, not his “overpaying” the specified amount.

Clifford Hall may have suffered an injustice (it’s not possible to make that determination without more information on the case, since news accounts have so far presented only his side of the story), but nothing in the limited information presented about this case so far — other than catchy headlines and sensationalized re-reporting of the original story — supports the interpretation that Clifford Hall was “sentenced for paying too much child support.”

What I’m wondering is how the custody and access agreement could have been varied “without his knowledge.” Maybe they do things differently in Texas – a state which, alas, produces more than it’s share of judicial horror stories – but it’s very, very rare for a court to change such an order or agreement without the other party being notified of the variation application.

Either someone screwed up, someone is lying and saying he was told about the variation application when he really wasn’t, or Hall was informed of the application and just didn’t show up. (Having practiced family law for 15 years, I can tell you the latter is depressingly common.)

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