“Family law court is a court of equity,” California’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained in a case called In re Marriage of Boswell. “Those who seek equity, must do equity and have `clean hands.’” In other words, a party alleging that another hasn’t met their legal obligations better first make sure that he or she hasn’t done anything to cause the situation.
When Husband and Wife divorced in 1985, Wife was awarded physical custody of the couple’s two children. Husband, on the other hand, was ordered to pay Wife $140 per month in child support. He made the payments for only two months before Wife moved out of the state with the kids, according to the Court, and changed their names. Wife didn’t tell Husband that they were leaving or where they went. It was 15 years before Husband saw his children again, the Court explained. His daughter was 18 at that point, and his 16-year-old son came to live with Husband in California.
Given this backdrop, the Court had little empathy for Wife when she filed suit seeking past due child support in 2013. At this point, both of the children were over 30, and Wife asked a trial judge to award her more than $92,000 in support that she said Husband had wrongly refused to pay. The trial court declined.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Second District said the trial judge was well within his authority in refusing to enforce the now nearly 30-year-old child support order. Since Wife “actively concealed” the children, the Court said her hands weren’t clean. As a result, the Court further explained that it was in the interest of equity that she be blocked from seeking child support roughly three decades later. “Equity denies affirmative relief for such conduct…,” the Court wrote in its decision.
The Court also said that the trial judge didn’t err in rejecting the reasons that Wife gave for Husband not seeing the kids for 15 years. The Court didn’t say what those excuses were but instead explained that decisions about the credibility of parties and witnesses generally shouldn’t be reconsidered at the appellate stage. As a result, the Court upheld the trial judge’s ruling. It also ordered Wife to pay Husband’s costs related to the appeal.
While the facts of this particular case might be somewhat extreme, the unclean hands doctrine is an important one to keep in mind when seeking a divorce or looking to enforce a support award. It is one of the many issues that a party to a divorce or related proceeding should discuss with an experienced family law attorney.
If you’re considering seeking a divorce in California, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve child support and other issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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