Equitable Estoppel and Enforcement of Child Support
December 18, 2014 § 5 Comments
Jay Wilson and Joy Stewart were engaged in a contempt action over Jay’s failure to pay child support, alimony, and expenses of the children, based on the parties’ 2003 divorce judgment.
The chancellor found Jay in contempt, awarded Joy a judgment, and Jay appealed. Among his grounds for appeal was the claim that Joy was equitably estopped from bringing the child-support-enforcement action, since she had waited several years to do so.
The COA, in Wilson v. Stewart, decided December 9, 2014, by Judge Fair, addressed his argument briefly:
¶14. Jay also argues that Joy is equitably estopped from bringing the contempt action. This Court has found equitable estoppel to be inappropriate in child-support matters. Durr v. Durr, 912 So. 2d 1033, 1038 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2005). “[C]hild support is for the benefit of the minor. The custodial parent is only a conduit for the support. Therefore, it follows that no action or inaction on the part of the custodial parent can relieve the defaulting parent of that parent’s obligation to pay support.” Id. This argument is without merit.
The Durr decision goes somewhat further:
¶ 13. [Mr.] Durr also argues that Hale is equitably estopped from bringing the contempt action. “Equitable estoppel,” as Durr points out in his brief, “is generally defined as the ‘principle by which a party is precluded from denying any material fact, induced by his words or conduct, upon which a person relied, whereby the person changed his position in such a way that injury would be suffered if such denial or contrary assertion was followed.’ ” Koval v. Koval, 576 So.2d 134, 137 (Miss.1991).
¶ 14. It is well settled law, as we discussed above, that child support is for the benefit of the minor. The custodial parent is only a conduit for the support. Therefore, it follows that no action or inaction on the part of the custodial parent can relieve the defaulting parent of that parent’s obligation to pay support. Moreover, even if we were to find, which we do not, that equitable estoppel might be appropriate in child support cases, we would likewise find that Durr failed to meet the requirements for its application in this case. He has not shown how he changed his position in such a way that he would suffer injury if Hale is allowed to assert his lack of compliance with the judgment of divorce. In a feeble attempt to show that all of the conditions for the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel exist, Durr argues that he is facing jail time if the arrearage is not paid. This is hardly the type of injury that is contemplated as a condition for the application of “equitable estoppel.”
¶ 15. Further, Durr does not contend that Hale ever informed him that he did not have to pay for Waid’s private school. Rather, his argument, as we have already noted, is that she just waited too long to assert the claim for it. In other words, Durr’s position is that Hale’s inaction in timely pressing the private school tuition, justifiably led him to believe that he did not have to pay it notwithstanding the clear requirements of the judgment of divorce. Surely, Durr knew that any changes to, or modifications of, the judgment of divorce would have to be made by the court in order for them to be enforceable. Therefore, we find this issue lacks merit.
The court also rejected Durr’s claim that his inaction was justified by his ex’s “inaction, representations, and silence.”
So, from the foregoing, I think a proper conclusion is that claims of equitable estoppel are not favored in child-support cases, and that it would take an extreme case to apply it. An example is the fact situation in Varner v. Varner, where the mother informally induced the father to take one of the children back into his custody due to behavior and school problems. During his period of informal custody (i.e., without a court order), the father reduced his child support pro rata. After the father straightened the child out and returned him to the mother’s custody, she sued for the unpaid child support. Varner is not an equitable estoppel case, per se, but its fact situation would justify such a claim in my opinion.