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How To Get Stuck Paying Support For A Child Who Isn’t Yours

It’s really important you understand our legal system exists to settle disputes, not treat people fairly. While courts don’t go out of their way to be unfair, they have other priorities that may supersede commonly held notions of fairness and justice.

A case in point: A Michigan judge refused to set aside a $30,000 child support debt the state is trying to collect from a Detroit man for public assistance the child’s mother received decades ago, even though recent DNA testing proves he’s not the father. (The story was reported by WRTV-6 in Indianapolis, an ABC affiliate.)

http://www.theindychannel.com/news/detroit-man-fights-30k-child-support-bill-for-kid-that-is-not-his

The problem? The judge concluded the man was served a summons in 1987. He didn’t respond. Case closed, he can’t dispute the claim now.

That’s generally how the law works. Finality is a big deal to our legal system. This doesn’t just apply to child support. It applies to everything. If someone has been tried for a crime and acquitted, he can’t be tried again. Ever. Even if new evidence clearly proves his guilt. When a civil case is dismissed with prejudice, that means a lawsuit on the same claim can’t be filed again (not that the judge is “prejudiced”; legal language can be very confusing.)

Our legal system has a very strong bias against allowing anyone to relitigate a case that has already been finalized. Generally, finality kicks in when all appeals are exhausted. This bias is so strong some Republican Supreme Court justices are even willing to let wrongfully convicted people be put to death in order to uphold it.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped the Koch brothers from trying to relitigate court decisions that went against them long ago, but even Rolling Stone isn’t having it, and of course they have no chance of getting those cases reopened in the courts.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/inside-the-koch-brothers-toxic-empire-20140924

If even the Koch brothers can’t beat the finality bias in our legal system, what chance does this penniless Detroit man have?

Maybe some. He can prove the summons wasn’t validly served. The process server delivered it to his dad’s house. You don’t have to physically receive a legal summons, or be served personally, for legal service to be valid. If he lived there, if his dad’s home was his residence, then substituted service on his dad was good enough. Even if his dad let the summons flutter to the ground and didn’t pick it up, or tore it up or burned it, or otherwise never gave it to him or told him about it. All the law requires for valid substituted service is that a summons be delivered to a person of “suitable age and discretion” at a defendant’s normal place of residence.

The reason this attempted substituted service was no good is because this man’s normal place of residence at the time in question was a Michigan state prison. There’s no problem with documenting that’s where he was living then. The state has records of that. But I’m guessing that back in the 1980s the state computer system didn’t have an interface between prison records and child support case records that would tell that to whoever dispatched the process server and told him where to go.

The state has another argument here for not setting aside this debt: latches. This man didn’t just learn of the child support claim. He was informed of it when a cop pulled him over for a traffic violation in 1991. That was 24 years ago. The judge undoubtedly feels he shouldn’t have waited this long to dispute it. While the judge’s decision may seem arbitrary and unfair to many people, he’s upholding the legal system’s finality principle. Judges and lawyers and others who work with the legal system on a regular basis will understand this decision without difficulty.

So, this man may end up paying a $30,000 debt he doesn’t owe for a child that isn’t his, even though he wasn’t properly notified at the time, because he let it slide too long. I’m not familiar enough with Michigan law to express an opinion on whether an appellate court could or would order the case reopened. Maybe, maybe not. If this happened in Washington, he could go to the DSHS Division of Child Support and ask for what’s called a “conference board,” and I feel 99% certain that DSHS would voluntarily write off this debt. Maybe Michigan has something similar. This is why it is important when you finding yourself in the presents of someone similar to this colorado springs process server, being served with a summons, you do not let it wait but keep legal advice as soon as possible.

The lesson here, though, is don’t go through life believing our legal system is committed to justice and a fair outcome in any and all circumstances. It isn’t. Our legal system worships finality. Once a case becomes final, you’re screwed, unless some benevolent party on the other side of the case is willing to forego enforcing its final judgment against youRoger Rabbit icon.


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