By Jeralyn Lawrence, AAML NJ Chapter President
The principle that child support belongs to the child and not to the custodial parent is firmly established in New Jersey law. As a result, the misconduct or failures of their custodial parent may not be used to unduly burden children or deprive them of necessary support. This principle has come up for discussion on multiple occasions, especially in cases relating to child support claims filed later in the child's growth and development and after they have been estranged from the non-custodial parent for a significant period of time. One such case, L.V. v. R.S, 347 N.J. Super. 33, 788 A.2d 881 (N.J. Super. 2002), decided by the Appellate Division in 2002, has become a widely-cited precedent, especially when a noncustodial parent seeks to rely on the delay of the custodial parent to bar the collection of child support.
The doctrine of laches applies to bar claims or allow for relief when one party has engaged in a "delay for a length of time which, unexplained and unexcused, is unreasonable under the circumstances and has been prejudicial to the other party." W. Jersey Title & Guar. Co. v. Indus. Trust Co., 27 N.J. 144, 153 (1958). Therefore, in theory, and in practice in several cases, it has been relied upon in order to deny an action for child support many years after the birth of the child. Unlike a statute of limitations, laches is an equitable principle, and the court may exercise discretion as to what type of delay is unreasonable and thereby bar relief.
As noted in L.V. v. R.S., "Laches is an equitable doctrine which penalizes knowing inaction by a party with a legal right from enforcing that right after passage of such a period of time that prejudice has resulted to the other parents so that it would be inequitable to enforce the right." (347 N.J. Super. at 39)
However, as noted by the Appellate Division, "[s]ince welfare of children is a paramount concern, a public policy conflict arises from the application of the equitable doctrine of laches to a demand for child support." (L.V., 347 N.J. Super. at 40). The Appellate Division has repeatedly ruled that the application of the principle of laches to child support matters is closely circumscribed and that, even if it may be applied to actions by the custodial parent, that principle may not carry over to a claim by the minor child themselves.
Facts of the Case
In L.V. v. R.S., the plaintiff, who was the mother of the child and her custodial parent, appealed to the Appellate Division after the lower court denied her application for child support after a trial. The application was filed on behalf of her daughter Michelle in 1998 when Michelle was 16. The case began by seeking a paternity adjudication as well as a child support order, but the defendant, R.S., conceded that he was the father of Michelle after a genetic test established paternity with 99.99% confidence.
During the case, a pendente lite child support order was entered against the defendant for support of $183 paid weekly via wage garnishment, although its enforcement was deferred until the case was heard. The current wife of the defendant also filed a counterclaim against L.V., stating that she and R.S. had agreed to waive claims for child support, and the two claims were consolidated. The two parents, who were never married, had an off-and-on relationship between 1978 and 1981; in April of 1981, after their relationship had ended, L.V. and R.S. engaged in sexual intercourse. L.V. informed R.S. that she was pregnant with his child, and he sent her $100 for expenses.
Michelle was born in 1982, and her birth certificate named only the mother as her parent. L.V. testified that she did not want any contact with R.S. nor did she want his involvement in their daughter's life. They had little to no contact in the ensuing years, although R.S. sent L.V. a letter when Michelle was 7 years old, providing contact information and apologizing for past misconduct. L.V. did not respond to the letter or seek child support, although she stated that she was aware of how to file a child support action.
When Michelle was 16, she sought to find her father, using the internet and other public information. Eventually, Michelle found R.S.'s brother, who provided her with R.S.'s email account. Michelle and R.S. began communicating via email, sharing details of their lives and current photographs; during these email conversations, R.S. referred to himself as "Dad." L.V. called R.S. at work after learning of the conversations, and Michelle expressed that she was angry at her mother for doing this. After the conversations progressed over several months, Michelle asked R.S. for his address. He provided his work address but not his home address. However, Michelle told him that she already had found his address on her own.
At the trial, Michelle stated that she had asked for the address to file a child support application but said she did not start the relationship with her father for that reason. After R.S. received notification of the support claim, he angrily responded to Michelle, who responded in kind, ending the several months of friendly communication over email. The trial court judge denied L.V.'s support claim on the basis of laches, noting that L.V. did not want R.S. to be part of Michelle's life for many years and that, after their arguments following the support application, they would be unable to establish a bond.
In terms of any claim by L.V. herself, the Appellate Division agreed that the finding was fair. "While laches does not arise from delay alone, the actions and non-actions of the plaintiff are sufficient to justify the bar of laches to deny her any claim for reimbursement. The record shows that she was aware of procedures to obtain child support and to locate the defendant but chose not to do so in order to inhibit any daughter-father relationship." However, the court differentiated between any monetary award to L.V. and the rights of Michelle to make a claim for ongoing support moving forward. Specifically, the court held that "there is no basis to impute to a child the custodial parent's negligence, purposeful delay or obstinancy so as to vitiate the child's independent right of support from a natural parent." (Id. at 40)
The New Jersey Parentage Act provides recognition of the child's independent right to seek support or paternity, even if the action is filed by another on behalf of the child. Further, "a child is barred from relief by a prior paternity action only if the mother fully represented the child's right in the prior proceeding." (Id.)
Therefore, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's findings and remanded for further proceedings. Specifically, the court noted, "We see no reason why he should not be compelled to support her in spite of plaintiff's actions. As her father, he owes her the duty of support regardless of the quality of their relationship. There is no such tilting of an equitable balance to deprive his daughter of on-going support." (Id.) The date of support would extend from the filing of the complaint to the daughter's emancipation, but the plaintiff could not seek retroactive child support prior to that date.
Child's Right to Support
Despite the acts of Michelle's mother, which may have severely hampered the father-daughter relationship and in fact prevented Michelle from benefiting from financial support from her father prior to the age of 16, the Appellate Division was clear that the child would not lose her rights as a result of the actions or inaction of her parent. This has been one of the enduring legacies of this case, which has been cited dozens of times in ensuing actions. While the acts of the custodial parent may bar that parent from a later claim, they do not prevent the child from enforcing his or her own interests, especially when, as is the case here, the child is clearly old enough to understand the action and express her own needs and wants.
The case also highlights another key principle in New Jersey's child support jurisprudence: The right to support cannot be waived on behalf of the child by the parent. This comes up not only in cases like L.V. v. R.S., where one parent is estranged for many years but also in cases where parties seek to make agreements that do not require child support to be paid by one parent or where parents seek to extinguish child support obligations as part of a property settlement agreement during a divorce. "The purpose of child support is to benefit children, not to protect or support either parent. Our courts have repeatedly recognized that the right to child support belongs to the child, not the custodial parent." J.S. v. L.S., 389 N.J. Super. 200, 205 (App. Div. 2006)
The Appellate Division distinguished the case from two prior cases in which laches was used to deny a child support claim. In State v. Volk, 280 N.J. Super. 57, 654 A.2d 500 (App. Div. 1995), the Appellate Division held that laches barred a claim for child support which had remained dormant for nine years after the mother and child relocated to Virginia. In the Volk case, no contact had been reestablished between the father and the child, and the prior pending claim had been dismissed after the family moved. Still, the court noted that the child may have an independent claim for support that could potentially be taken up by a guardian at litem.
Previously, in Moore v. Hafeeza, 212 N.J. Super. 399 (Ch. Div. 1986), the Appellate Division denied a plaintiff's action for support 15 years after a previous claim had been dismissed when filed by the Board of Social Services. The claim was dismissed on the grounds of res judicata and collateral estoppel, but the court noted that laches was an alternative grounds for dismissal.
However, in L.V. v. R.S., there was no prior dismissed action, and contact, however fleeting, had been reestablished between parent and child. The Court noted, "however sharp the serpent's tooth, an ungrateful child does not relieve a parent of the duty of support ...To the extent that either Volk or Hafeeza may be read to indicate that laches of the custodial parent may vitiate a child's right of on-going support, we disapprove and decline to follow such a holding." (L.V. , 347 N.J. Super. at 43)
Implications for Practitioners
L.V. v. R.S. is a widely cited case in a number of New Jersey family law matters, ranging from the right of a child to pursue support to the applicability of laches in child custody, support, or paternity issues. Even when a custodial parent has engaged in some form of wrongdoing or may be barred from seeking a claim against the other parent, this does not extinguish the rights of the child. Further, if the claim could be made in the case of the custodial parent's abandonment or death, it is likely that the claim can still be made by the child in their own interest. Even when the fault of one party may be relevant to property division or spousal support in a divorce action, it is not relevant to child support, as it is the right of the child and not of either parent. This means that children may be able to pursue claims for child support, even after lengthy estrangement and even if their custodial parent is partially or wholly at fault for the estrangement itself.
Further, the principles underlying the case serve as another reminder that parents may not contract away their children's right to support, whether through a property settlement agreement or another form of contract negotiated between them. The child would retain their rights and may be able to file a claim at a later date. Similarly, children may have a right to intervene in their own interests against both of their parents in marital settlement agreements and divorce proceedings. When constructing a marital settlement of any kind, it is important to explicitly provide for suitable child support, even if this means altering other aspects of the agreement in order to make it clear that the children's interests were not harmed in any future review.