In Rodriguez v. Garcia, an unpublished memorandum decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals vacated part of the family court’s child support order and affirmed its other orders.
Mother filed a petition to establish paternity and child support in August 2017. About a year later, the parties attended an evidentiary hearing where Mother testified that she contacted Father regarding the pregnancy and birth of their child on multiple occasions before she initiated the establishment action. Father testified that Mother ceased all contact after their relationship ended in 2012 until she contacted him shortly before she filed her petition.
This testimony was relevant because in any action to establish child support (including divorce or legal separation), the family court can order child support retroactively for up to three years before the petition is filed pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 25-809 and/or 25-320.
Both statutes instruct the family court to consider whether any equitable defenses exist to reduce or preclude retroactive establishment of child support. Equitable defenses may include but are not necessarily limited to waiver, estoppel, and/or laches. More than one may apply but each must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
To establish waiver, a litigant must prove that the other party voluntarily and intentionally relinquished a legal right. It is usually insufficient to rely on unspoken assumptions or a subjective belief regarding the other party’s intentions.
There are a few different variations of estoppel, but briefly the term generally refers to when a litigant detrimentally relies on the promises or conduct of the other party. Promissory estoppel and collateral estoppel are among the equitable defenses most commonly asserted in Arizona family court.
Laches usually refers to a delay between the event that creates a legal claim and the time when a litigant asserts the claim. When it comes to child support cases, laches requires the obligor (the parent who owes support) to prove that the other parent unreasonably delayed to an extent that prejudiced or damaged the owing parent. This is important because delay alone, even significant delay, does not automatically establish a valid laches defense.
Here, the Court of Appeals deferred to the family court’s finding that Father successfully asserted a laches defense. The family court found that Father was deprived of an opportunity to establish a relationship with the child and had no opportunity to limit the accrual of child support because he was unaware he had a child.
On appeal, Mother challenged the family court’s attribution of minimum wage to Father. For purposes of calculating child support, the Arizona child support guidelines enable family courts to attribute income up to the parent’s full earning capacity whenever the parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed.
Here, Father testified that he previously earned $21 per hour until May 2018 when his health declined. Father’s testimony was supported by documentation from his employer that he was on indefinite medical leave. This was sufficient to support the family court’s attribution of minimum wage.
However, the Court of Appeals did find that the family court erroneously used minimum wage to calculate child support for the period between the date the petition was filed and the date Father’s health deteriorated. It vacated this part of the family court’s order and remanded it to be recalculated using the wages Father actually earned during that time.