“These are some of the dirtiest hands we have seen.”California’s Second District Court of Appeals wasn’t talking about in In re the Marriage of Boswell was not referring to literal dirty hands, but about the family law doctrine of “unclean hands,” a principle that in this case cost a divorced spouse more than $92,000 in unpaid child support. As the Court explained, a person who has acted unethically can’t seek legal redress in a family law court for a situation that the unethical action helped create.
After Husband and Wife divorced in 1985, a trial judge awarded physical custody of the couple’s two children to Wife and ordered Husband to pay $70 per month in child support. Just two months after this ruling, according to the appeals court, Wife moved with the children out of California. She also changed their names and didn’t inform Husband of their new whereabouts. As a result, Husband didn’t see or communicate with the kids for 15 years. That changed when Wife suddenly sent the youngest child, then 16 years old, to live with his father.
In 2013, Wife sued Husband for arrearages on the child support, claiming that he owed her more than $92,000 in child support and interest that wasn’t paid after she skipped town with the kids. Both of the children were more than 30 years old at the time. Denying the claim, a trial court ruled that Wife was judicially estopped from seeking unpaid child support because she had “unclean hands.” Specifically, the trial judge said Wife had unjustly removed the children from their father’s life.
Upholding the decision on appeal, the Second District called Wife’s claim that the trial court didn’t credit her excuse for her behavior, an excuse that the appeals court didn’t disclose, “frivolous.” It also explained the “unclean hands” rule. “Family law court is a court of equity,” the Court said simply. “Those who seek equity, must do equity and have ‘clean hands.'” Here, the Court said the trial judge found that Wife actively tried to conceal the kids. Thus, her hands were not clean in the eyes of the law.
The Court further explained that the trial judge’s decision to discredit Wife’s claim that Husband was to blame for not seeing the kids wasn’t an appropriate ground for appeal. “The appellate court may not substitute its discretion for that of the trial court unless the appellant can demonstrate, as a matter of law, that the trial court’s judgment is arbitrary, capricious, whimsical, or exceeds the bounds of reason,” the Court wrote.
While the outcome in this case seems reasonable, one can never rely on a reasonable outcome when it comes to child support in the California courts. The courts are bound by the the rigid and arbitrary California child support guidelines and rarely take other circumstances into account in making child support orders. Moreover, as this case shows, unpaid child support with added interest is often over $100,000, and financially crippling. Most families do much better by staying out of court and working together to determine how best to share the cost of raising their children.
In situations where one spouse actively keeps her kids from having the other spouse in their lives, it’s hard to imagine that the couple could resolve their differences without resorting to the courts. In many other divorce cases, however, alternatives like mediation and collaborative divorce can help divorcing spouses avoid some of the time, cost, and stress of traditional litigation. With offices throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, California divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes provides innovative legal tools to resolve many family law disputes without the bitterness and acrimony engendered by the adversarial process.
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