If you were ordered to pay child support and over time have fallen behind on that obligation, you may be wondering about the other party’s ability to bring an enforcement action on that child support arrearage. So are there any time limits to bringing a claim for such child support arrearage?
Although there is no explicit limitation period for arrearage claims, the doctrine of laches may be asserted as a defense to bar a claim for child support arrearages if all the elements of the doctrine of laches can be established, which in and of itself requires a case-by-case determination.
The Florida Supreme Court in McCray v. State has summarized the laches test in the following manner:
Generally, laches is a doctrine asserted as a defense, which “requires proof of (1) lack of diligence by the party against whom the defense is asserted, and (2) prejudice to the party asserting the defense.” … As time goes by, records are destroyed, essential evidence may become tainted or disappear, memories of witnesses fade, and witnesses may die or be otherwise unavailable.
McCray v. State, 699 So. 2d 1366, 1368 (Fla. 1997) (internal citations omitted).
When applying laches to a family law matter, the Florida Supreme Court in Stephenson v. Stephenson has summarized the test for laches in the following manner:
“The true test to apply laches is whether or not the delay has resulted in injury, embarrassment, or disadvantage to any person and particularly to the person against whom relief is sought․” …Or, as stated in Bethea v. Langford, Fla., 45 So.2d 496, 498, “the delay required to render the defense of laches available ‘must have been such as practically to preclude the court from arriving at a safe conclusion as to the truth of the matters in controversy, and thus make the doing of equity either doubtful or impossible, as through loss or obscuration of evidence of the transaction in issue; or there must have occurred in the meantime a change in conditions that would render it inequitable to enforce the right asserted.’”
Stephenson v. Stephenson, 52 So. 2d 684, 686 (Fla. 1951) (internal citations omitted).
Hence, if you are in a situation where an action has been filed against you to collect on the child support arrearage, depending on the particular facts of your case, you may be able to assert a defense of laches. For example, laches would be effective to bar such an enforcement action when there has been (1) a substantial and inexcusable delay in enforcing the claim to arrears of support and (2) the delay has also prejudiced you or led you to change your position to such an extent that enforcement of the original decree would be inequitable or unjust. Garcia v. Guerra, 738 So. 2d 459, 461 (Fla. 3d DCA 1999) (quoting Homer H. Clark, Jr., The Law of Domestic Relations in the United States § 18.3, at 394 (2d ed.1987) (footnote omitted)).
If, on the other hand, you are the party who is contemplating pursuing a claim for child support arrearages, then you should be well aware how the doctrine of laches may bar that claim altogether.
Consequently, since there is no bright-line rule as to when a claim for child support arrearages is viable, and when it is not, it would be the specific facts of your case that would determine the applicability of the laches doctrine. Therefore, it would be prudent for both the petitioner and the respondent to perform an in-depth analysis of their case either prior to moving forward with the enforcement action or prior to asserting laches as a defense to a pending action.