Concealing children from non-custodial parent bars enforcement of past child support

In re Marriage of Boswell, 225 Cal.App.4th 1172 (2014)

Ruling on what it deemed a frivolous appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling that where a custodial parent actively conceals children from a non-custodial parent, equity bars enforcement of a child support arrearage judgment against the non-custodial parent.

This is how the case played out: The parents of two young children divorced in 1985. The mother was awarded physical custody and child support. The father paid child support for two months and then the mother moved with the children to another state without letting the father know their whereabouts. Fifteen years later, when the elder child was already an adult, the mother contacted the father and left the younger child in his custody. Another 15 years passed before the mother attempted to enforce the child support order, the arrears of which totaled more than $90,000. The mother denied she concealed the children, but the trial court did not believe her version of the facts.

She appealed that factual finding of the trial court, inciting the ire of the Court of Appeal, which held: (1) “a family law court, in the exercise of its broad equitable discretion, and upon a finding of ‘unclean hands,’ may decline to enforce a child support arrearage judgment”; and (2) “where, as here, the family court makes a fair and equitable ruling on contested issues of fact, its express or implied factual determinations, are binding on appeal. The appellate court may not substitute its discretion for that of the trial court unless the appellant can demonstrate, as a matter of law, that the trial court’s judgment is arbitrary, capricious, whimsical, or exceeds the bounds of reason.” The Court did agree with the mother that the doctrine of laches only applies in child support cases where child support is owed to the state, finding an error of law in the trial court’s ruling that laches, in addition to equity, barred the mother’s claim. That error by the trial court, according to Justice Yegan, saved the mother from sanctions for her frivolous appeal.