Child support arrearage claim denied where mother concealed the children

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In the case of In re Marriage of Boswell, the Second District California Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling denying the mother’s claim against the father for child support arrearages. The appellate court decided that the claim was barred under equitable principles due to the mother’s misconduct in actively concealing the children from the father for a period of about 15 years. “Equity,” as defined in Black’s Law Dictionary, means the basic doctrines of evenhanded and fair dealing.

Background and procedural history

The mother and father obtained a dissolution of marriage in 1985. Under the dissolution decree, physical custody of the parties’ two minor children was awarded to the mother. The father was ordered to pay $70 in monthly child support for each child. After the father had paid support for two months, the mother disappeared with the children. She moved out of state, changed the names of the children, and did not notify the father of their new addresses. The father did not see the children again until roughly 15 years later. The mother later “gave” the father custody of the youngest child, when he was age 16 and he continued to live with the father until he reached the age of majority.

In 2013, when both of the children were in their 30s, the mother filed suit to recover back child support, alleging that unpaid child support arrearages totaling $92,734.94 were owed. The trial court denied the claim on the basis that the mother’s conduct in concealing the whereabouts of the children from the father was “terribly egregious” and “unjust.”

The trial court also ruled that the suit seeking to enforce a 25-year-old child support ordered was barred under a legal doctrine known as “laches” because the mother had waited too long and unreasonably delayed the filing of her claim.

The Second District’s ruling

The Second District upheld the trial court’s decision, stating that family law cases are “equitable” proceedings, that family law courts are courts of “equity,” and that family law courts are empowered to use their discretion to achieve results based on fairness and equity. Those who seek equity from the courts must “do equity and have clean hands,” the court wrote. Due to the mother’s misconduct in actively concealing the children from their father, she was barred from enforcing the child support order. The Second District ruled that the family law court had the authority to refuse to enforce the mother’s claim for child support arrearages based upon the court’s finding that the mother had “unclean hands.”

With regard to the trial court’s ruling that the claim was time-barred under the doctrine of “laches,” the Second District decided that this part of the trial court’s decision was incorrect. A California statute permits the doctrine of laches to be applied in child support cases, but only where the support obligation is owed to the state.

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Individuals facing issues relating to divorce, child custody or other family law matters are urged to consult with a competent attorney, experienced in family law cases, to ensure the protection of their legal rights.

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