Saturday, January 09, 2016

Mother's Move To Eskimo Village Does Not Justify Reduction In Her Child Support Obligations

In Sharpe v. Sharpe, (AK Sup. Ct., Jan. 8. 2016), the Alaska Supreme Court in a 3-2 decision upheld a trial court's denial of a mother's motion to reduce the amount she is required to pay under a child-support order. The mother, who is the non-custodial parent of an 10 year old daughter, gave up her high-paying Alaska pipeline job to move back to her Yup'ik Eskimo community.  She adopted a subsistence lifestyle there to meet her her cultural, spiritual, and religious needs and help her in her battle with alcohol. Under Alaska rules, the court can order a parent to pay more than would otherwise be justified by his or her current income level if the parent is "voluntarily and unreasonably" unemployed or underemployed. The majority concluded that this was a voluntary and unreasonable decision by the mother to earn less than she is capable of earning.

On appeal, the mother also argued that the child support order burdens her free exercise of religion as protected by the Alaska Constitution.  She contended that the order in effect requires her to give up her Native religious and cultural heritage to maintain a stressful job in Anchorage. The majority rejected her claim because it had not been raised at trial.

Justice Winfree dissenting argued in part:
Today’s decision has enormous negative implications. It trivializes and devalues Alaska Natives’ cultural, spiritual, and religious connections to their villages and their subsistence lifestyle.  It requires a non-custodial Native parent in rural Alaska to pay child support based on what the parent could earn in urban Alaska regardless of the legitimacy of choosing to live in rural Alaska.... [I]t infringes on constitutionally protected religious and privacy rights.