October 18, 2005
Case Law Development: Child Support Calculations - Extra Income, Past Support and the Application of Equitable Defenses
The Supreme Court of Iowa clarified a number of issues relating to setting the amount of current and past due child support.
First, the court confirmed that extra income (such as income from bonuses, overtime, or second jobs) may be included in determining child support if it is reasonably expected to be received in the future. If extra income is uncertain or speculative, or if it is an anomaly, it is excluded. In this case, Mother presented evidence that in the year prior to the action, Father had earned income from a second job. The court held that this evidence was sufficient to then shift the burden of proof to Father to establish that it should be excluded from gross income as uncertain and speculative. “The recipient of extra income is in the best position to present the underlying circumstances to the court, which makes it fair to place the burden on the recipient to show the extra income should be excluded or considered in some other manner.”
The court also considered arguments regarding past child support. Since Mother had waited six years to bring the paternity action, Father argued that she was barred by doctrines of estoppel, waiver, and laches. The court denied all these defenses. As to estoppel and waiver, the court found that Mother’s failure to pursue the paternity action alone was insufficient to establish these defenses. The court held that, to establish estoppel or waiver, the obligor parent must provide “some kind of affirmative act, inconsistent with the intention to collect child support.” As to the laches claim, the court found that Father was unable to establish by clear and convincing evidence that Mother had unreasonably delayed asserting her right to collect back child support and that he was prejudiced by the delay. In considering the reason for Mother’s delay in bringing the action, the court found that Mother, as a single mother of three children making about $18,000 a year, she simply could not afford an attorney. While she did contact the state Child Support Recovery Unit, they did not assist her, nor did they inform her that the county attorney might be able to pursue an action on her behalf. She was finally able to bring the action when she had the opportunity to purchase prepaid legal insurance through her employment. Delay in bringing an action may be reasonable when "lack of funds precludes a party from retaining a lawyer to pursue a claim.” Nor was the court convinced that Father’s claim that he spent the money he would have paid in child support constituted prejudice caused by Mother’s delay.
Finally, the court analyzed the method by which courts determine the amount of back child support. The Iowa statutes allow courts to determine past support based on whatever "the court deems appropriate for the past support and maintenance of the child" rather than relying on the uniform child support guidelines. Nonetheless, the court suggested that one should begin with the amount of support that would have been paid under the guidelines if no delay had occurred. The court may then consider the financial burden on the obligor parent of the amount thus determined, and the circumstances of whether the Father was aware of his alleged paternity at an earlier date.
Markey v. Carney, 2005 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 139 (October 14, 2005) Opinion on the web at http://www.judicial.state.ia.us/supreme/opinions/20051014/04-0519.asp (last visited October 17, 2005 bgf)