California Defense of Laches Child Support

The words of Family Code section 4502 are clear and unambiguous. What is not so clear, however, is whether the traditional defense of laches applies. While it is true the Legislature did not specifically mention laches as a defense, it did not specifically prohibit it either. Even though the Legislature has previously set out laches as a defense in the other Family Code sections mentioned above, the Legislature is presumably aware of the fact that for over 50 years, case law has held that laches is a defense to the collection of stale child and spousal support judgments. (People v. Hall (1994) 8 Cal. 4th 950, 961-962 [35 Cal. Rptr. 2d 432, 883 P.2d 974]; People v. Overstreet (1986) 42 Cal. 3d 891, 897 [231 Cal. Rptr. 213, 726 P.2d 1288].) In attempting to decipher legislative intent, some of the extrinsic aids we are allowed to consider are the history of the statute and committee reports. ( California Teachers Assn v. San Diego Community College Dist., supra, 28 Cal. 3d at p. 700; Rich v. State Board of Optometry (1965) 235 Cal. App. 2d 591, 603 [45 Cal. Rptr. 512]; National R.V., Inc v. Foreman (1995) 34 Cal. App. 4th 1072, 1083 [40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 672].) The 1992 version of former Civil Code section 4384.5 arose out of Assembly Bill No. 568 (1991-1992 Reg. Sess.) (Bill No. 568). As originally passed in the Assembly in 1991, Bill No. 568 did not contain any provision regarding the exemption of family law judgments from periodic renewal. In fact, Bill No. 568 started out as a bill involving assistance dogs. It went through an amazing transformation in both the Assembly and the Senate. Bill No. 568 was finally amended in the Senate to add five new provisions regarding paternity and child support, including the provision that is the subject of this appeal, to wit, former Civil Code section 4384.5. Although the legislative history shows little discussion as to the need for the latter provision, it appears that the driving force was the difficulty that various district attorneys were having in keeping up with renewal of support judgments, given their huge volume of work combined with shortage of staff. The history also shows that the Legislature was aware of the problem with enforcement of stale judgments and the potential conflict between various enforcement statutes. Most important to our resolution of this issue, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the proposed legislation on August 18, 1992. The report of that body contains the following statement: "Concern has been expressed that [the] provision [to exempt support judgments from periodic renewal requirements] would remove the custodial parent's incentive to diligently seek action on a support order. However, the obligor parent could raise equitable defenses, such as laches, to prohibit an action to enforce an extremely old order." (Sen. Com. on Judiciary, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 568 (1991-1992 Reg. Sess.) as amended Aug. 13, 1992, italics added.) In view of the facts that the defense of laches has historically been applied to California child and spousal support judgments, that the Legislature did not specifically rule out the defense of laches, and that it appears the Legislature, in considering the proposed legislation, believed laches would still be available as a defense, we conclude that the trial court correctly decided respondent could indeed raise such a defense. Contrary to the contention of amicus curiae, the case of DiMarco v. DiMarco (1963), 60 Cal. 2d 387 does not compel an opposite result. During the time frames applicable in DiMarco, the creditor-spouse had 10 years to enforce a support judgment. The Supreme Court stated that laches could not be asserted by the debtor-spouse where enforcement was within that 10-year period. The law has now changed to eliminate any period of limitations for enforcement of a support judgment. However, the Supreme Court was not faced with that factual situation. We therefore hold that DiMarco does not stand for the proposition that laches can never be asserted as a defense against enforcement of a judgment for child support.