The Equitable Defense of “Laches” as applied to Arizona Back Child Support Obligations.
In the matter of In re Paternity of Gloria, 1999 AZ 42033 (AZCA, 1999), the Arizona Court of Appeals considered the issue of whether evidence presented at the trial court established that the appellant unreasonably delayed her attempt to collect child support arrearages from the appellee such that the doctrine of laches prevented the State from collecting an award for past support. Id. at ? 11. In holding that the equitable defense of laches did not bar appellant's collection efforts, the Court of Appeals opined that appellee "cannot simply argue that evidence of [appellant's] inaction supports laches against the State because [appellee] has the burden of showing by clear and compelling evidence that laches bars the collection of child support arrearages from him," and that appellee had failed to meet this burden. Id. at ? 33.
Laches is an equitable defense of estoppel that applies when the party asserting the defense demonstrates that, because of delay or lapse of time, they are injured or have changed position in reliance on the other party's inaction(s). Id. at ? 26; Jerger v. Rubin, 106 Ariz. 114, 117, 471 P.2d 726, 729 (1970). "Laches may not be attributed to a party for mere delay in assertion of a claim; rather, the delay must be unreasonable under the circumstances and result in prejudice to the other party sufficient to justify denial of relief." Id. citing Flynn v. Rogers, 172 Ariz. 62, 66, 834 P.2d 148, 152 (1992).
Turning then to the issue of retroactive collection for past due support, A.R.S. ? 25-809 (B) states in pertinent part:
[t]he court shall enter an order for support determined to be due for the period between the commencement of the proceeding and the date that the current child support is ordered to begin. The court shall not order past support retroactive to more than three years before the commencement of the proceeding unless the court makes a written finding of good cause after considering all relevant circumstances***.
Therefore, A.R.S. ? 25-809 (B) on its face, as well as the legislative intent related thereto is silent regarding a prerequisite condition of knowledge of a child being the presumptive date in which a court can order past support retroactive to. Likewise, through parsing in attempt to properly apply, the statute states that the "court shall not order past support retroactive to more than three years" without first making written findings regarding all relevant circumstances. Id. However, on its face, the statute places no such restrictions on the Court in ordering past support retroactive up to three years. Therefore, because the legislature in drafting the statute deemed it necessary to place certain conditions on its application when retroactively applying past support for a duration of greater than three years, but not when determining past support for up to three years, it can be argued that the intent of the statute is for the court to order past support retroactive for a period of at least three years.
In applying the above reasoning then, it is important that a party defending a claim for past due support present ample evidence demonstrating that they were not aware of an obligation to pay support. Generally this applies in situations where a mother until a much later date in time fails to notify a party that he is the child's father.
For more information on this or any other Arizona family law matter, it is recommended that prior to initiating judicial process you first meet with an attorney experienced in the area.