No To Child Support Judgment in Small Claims Court

One man’s effort to give effect to his private child support arrangement fails for lack of jurisdiction in Oklahoma’s Small Claims Court.

The father in Parsons v. Klingamon had been ordered in District Court to pay $250.00 per month in child support to the mother.  The 1996 decree did not provide for health insurance as the child was Native American and had access to free medical care.  Father claims that in 2007 he and Mother agreed to a private arrangement for him to pay her $150.00 per month in child support.  Father would also buy health insurance for the child (Mom and Dad were both unhappy with tribal health care).

In 2009, Mother asked the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) to collect the unpaid portion of court-ordered child support.  Father objected to a DHS assignment of income, claiming he was current under the private agreement.  While a DHS administrative case was pending, Father filed a small claims case against Mother.  He sought $2,500.00 “for child support payments” he claimed had been wrongfully withheld from his pay for child support.

The small claims judge granted Father a judgment.  The trial court considered this to be a dispute between two parties to a third party beneficiary contract.  The court granted judgment on a theory that Mother was being unjustly enriched by the DHS withholding.

DHS entered the case and filed a motion to vacate, citing 3 legal grounds for their claim that the small claims court could not enter the judgment it did.  The trial court declined to vacate.  On appeal, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals makes it clear that only the District Court, not the Small Claims Court, has jurisdiction over matters relating to child support.  Despite the efforts of the small claims judge to cast this case as a contract matter, it was a child support case.  The trial court had exceeded its jurisdiction.  Judgment reversed.

The appellate court noted Father still has recourse in administrative and district court.  The opinion did not pass on the merits of Father’s claims.

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