Alexander v. Harris

Alexander v. Harris, --- So.3d --- (Fla. 2nd DCA 2019)

In this 2nd DCA case, the Court once again considered the ability to garnish distributions from a trust for the enforcement of a child support order. It held that the distributions made to or for the benefit of the father from a discretionary special needs trust could be garnished for child support payments owed to a minor child.

The trust in question was a special needs trust funded from the settlement of a product liability action. The father has no control over the trust, cannot compel the trustee to make distributions, and does not personally receive any disbursements from the trust because they are made directly to third parties. The mother argued that pursuant to F.S. 736.0503, the discretionary distributions are not protected from continuing garnishment for support payments. 

As you may recall, in 1985, the Florida Supreme Court held in Bacardi v. White that a continuing writ of garnishment may attach to discretionary distributions to enforce support orders. Bacardi v. White, 463 So.2d 218 (Fla. 1985). In 2013, the 2nd DCA further held that Bacardi applied whether distributions were made to the beneficiary or for the benefit of the beneficiary. Berlinger v. Casselberry, 133 So.3d 961 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013).

The father tried to avoid the holdings in Bacardi and Berlinger by arguing that his case was distinguishable because using the trust's funds to satisfy his support obligations would jeopardize his eligibility for public assistance. Neither the father nor the court could find a legal basis for this conclusion. The Court noted that the law appears to in fact be the opposite-- federal law gives deference to state courts in family proceedings, and Congress has made no attempt to preempted state statutes like F.S. 736.0503 in these situations.

The Court ultimately held that in balancing the public policy interests of enforcing settlement orders versus spendthrift provisions in trust, Florida's strong public policy favoring the enforcement of alimony and support orders takes precedence. As a result, the special needs trust did not protect the father from his legal obligation to support his child and a writ of garnishment was appropriate.


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