Non-Parent Lawsuit for Reimbursement of Child Support
Arizona law requires every parent to financially support their children. If someone else supports a nonpaying parent’s child, the law implies a promise from the parent for reimbursement. Can someone who provided support for a child sue a parent who failed to support the child? Do laches bar suit brought after a decade? In the case, Anonymous Wife v. Anonymous Husband, 739 P.2d 794 (1987) the Arizona Supreme Court addressed these questions.
Facts of the Case
In 1971, during the marriage of Wife and Husband, Wife became pregnant with another man’s child. It was born in 1972. The natural father did not offer to contribute to the child’s support. Wife and Husband raised the child as their own. However, this ended when Wife petitioned for dissolution of the marriage in 1981.
Husband denied paternity of the child and Wife filed a paternity complaint against both men. Husband filed a cross-claim against the natural father for one-half of the funds expended by the community to support the child. The trial court ordered the natural father to contribute to the support of the child. However, it held that neither Husband nor Wife would recover support payments they made from Husband.
The trial court reasoned that they had elected to treat the child as their own. Any claim against natural father, the court said, was time-barred. It rejected Husband’s claim for attorney fees. The court of appeals ruled that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to hear Husband’s cross-claim against the natural father.
It also denied the husband’s request for attorney’s fees. The trial court later denied Husband’s motion for reconsideration. It granted natural father’s request for attorney’s fees. The Arizona Supreme Court granted review.
Trial Court’s Jurisdiction to Adjudicate Husband’s Cross-Claim
The only powers a divorce court can exercise are those set out in the law. The court of appeals acknowledged this. It reviewed the law and concluded that the trial court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear Husband’s cross-claim against the natural father. The cross-claim was for reimbursement of funds Husband spent to support natural father’s child.
The Arizona Supreme Court disagreed with that conclusion. It said that if the natural father is adjudged the child’s father, the court can order support payments. And Arizona law does not limit to whom back support payments can be ordered.
The husband may be among the persons to whom payment may be ordered under the law. Any other ruling on this issue would encourage piecemeal litigation.
Does Husband’s Cross-Claim Have Merit?
Natural parents have a legal obligation to financially support their children. What if a natural parent doesn’t financially support a child and another person offers support? In that case, the law implies a promise by the parent to reimburse the person supporting the child. Here, the natural father made no effort to financially support his daughter.
Husband helped Wife to support the child; although he was under no legal obligation to do so. The natural father is legally obligated to reimburse Husband for the money he spent to provide the child with necessities. Thus, the Court found Husband’s cross-claim had merit unless it was time-barred.
Is Husband’s Cross-Claim Time-Barred?
Generally, “time-barred” refers to legal claims made after the time set in the statute for making such claims has passed. Husband’s cross-claim is not barred by any statute of limitations. Husband could not have made a claim for child support before the issue of paternity was resolved. Arizona law does not limit the period an individual has to bring a paternity action.
The paternity complaints were filed here while the child was a minor. So was Husband’s cross-claim for reimbursement of child support. However, the cross-claim may be time-barred by laches. Laches bar claims not diligently pursued if the delay injured the other party. Here, laches will bar Husband’s cross-claim if he failed to act diligently and natural father was injured by the delay.
Husband knew before the child was born that the natural father was the child’s true father. Waiting so long before filing a claim suggests that Husband didn’t pursue his claim diligently. Natural father claims that he was injured by Husband’s failure to diligently pursue his claim. He alleges that, because of Husband’s delay, he did not set aside any money for the child’s support. He claims that making him suddenly pay 10 years of back support would put him in an unjust position.
The Court acknowledged that Husband’s late claim for support will disrupt natural father’s financial affairs. However, the Court found that equity here greatly favors Husband, who helped the child. Therefore, the Court declined to hold that natural father can rely on the equitable defense of laches.
What Claims Can Husband Make?
The court found that the amount Husband can recover from the natural father is limited. Husband can only recover the funds he spent for the child’s necessaries within three years before filing his cross-claim. The Court denied his request for attorney fees.
The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the trial court judgment in part. It also reversed the judgment in part. The trial court must determine Husband’s share of community support amounts expended during three years before the cross-claim was filed.
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