Florida Court Examines the Defense of Laches in Child Support Cases

In Florida child support cases, it is unfortunately not uncommon for the parent obligated to pay support to fail to uphold their duties. If they do, they can be held in contempt. The party seeking a contempt order and arrearages must act in a timely manner, however, otherwise, they may be precluded from recovering the amounts owed due to the defense of laches. In a recent Florida child support case, the court provided a valuable overview of the affirmative defense of laches, ultimately determining that it did not apply. If you need assistance with a child support matter, it is in your best interest to meet with a Miami child support attorney to evaluate your options.

History of the Case

It is reported that the parties divorced in 1994, and the former husband was ordered to pay child support until their child was emancipated in 2005. However, in 1995, the former husband ceased paying child support through the disbursement unit, citing job loss, and instead paid the former wife $100 weekly, with a promise to resume full payments when he found employment. Unfortunately, he never did.

Allegedly, a Judgment/Certificate of Delinquency was filed but expired in 2016. In 2017, the former wife initiated a motion for contempt, which the general magistrate deemed “premature.” The magistrate instructed the former wife to file a motion to determine the child support arrearage, but she never did. Two years later, the former husband passed away, leaving his entire estate to his long-term girlfriend, who subsequently also passed away. Following these events, the former wife filed an independent action to collect the owed amount, totaling $282,070.64.

It is stated that the estate’s personal representative raised affirmative defenses, including laches, contending that the former wife had waited a decade after the child’s emancipation to claim the arrearage and had failed to follow the magistrate’s instructions. The former wife explained her delay by stating she was unaware of her ability to pursue the arrearage claim post-emancipation. The trial court dismissed the former wife’s complaint, asserting that she had not met her burden of proof and had not validly countered the affirmative defense of laches. The wife appealed.

The Defense of Laches in Child Support Cases

Upon review, the court disagreed with the trial court’s assessment that the wife did not meet her burden of proof. It cited the Judgment/Certificate of Delinquency in support of its assessment and reversed the finding of laches.

The court explained that child support rights are vested but can be subject to a claim of laches, which necessitates the demonstration of four elements: conduct by the defendant giving rise to the complaint, the plaintiff’s knowledge of the defendant’s conduct, and the failure to assert their right in a timely manner, lack of knowledge by the defendant regarding the plaintiff’s intent to assert the right, and extraordinary injury or prejudice.

The court underscored that previous case law had established that laches seldom applies in child support matters. The burden of proof rests on the party invoking the affirmative defense. The court opined that the estate had failed to meet this burden, partly due to the former husband’s inability to testify on his behalf. Crucially, the estate could not demonstrate that the former husband was unaware of the former wife’s intent to assert her right to collect the arrearage following her motion for contempt. Additionally, there was no evidence of injury or prejudice to the former husband. As a result, the court reversed the decision.

Talk to a Trusted Miami Attorney

In Florida, people who decline to pay child support in accordance with a court order may be subject to civil penalties. If you need assistance with a dispute over child support, it is wise to talk to an attorney about your options. The trusted Miami family law lawyers of the Law Offices of Sandy T. Fox, P.A. can advise you of your rights and aid you in seeking any relief possible. You can contact us through our online form or at 800-596-0579 to arrange a conference.