On August 8, 1995, using a federal law targeting the most egregious deadbeat fathers, FBI agents arrested Jeffrey Nichols for failing to pay approximately $580,000 in child support. Although the law is fairly new, the problem of child support enforcement has troubled this country for decades. In the early 1970s, child support enforcement was so inadequate that the federal government spent $7.6 billion annually on welfare to provide for single parents. The government has tried to remedy the problem, but seventy-five percent of custodial mothers in this country continue either to lack child support orders or to receive less than full payment under such orders. Although Maine has received national acclaim for its child support enforcement law, the issue continues to pose financial, *155moral, and legal problems for Maine's legislators, courts, and parents. In Fisco v. Department of Human Services the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, sitting as the Law Court, held that in an action for child support arrearages, it was “unreasonable” for the defendant, Fisco, to rely on his former wife's written discharge of his child support obligations. The court rejected his defense of laches, defined as negligence or omission to seasonably assert a right that results in prejudice to the defendant. Fisco's reliance on the agreement did not demonstrate the requisite prejudice despite twelve years of apparent complacency on the part of his former wife. This Note contends that the Law Court's decision in Fisco created a uniquely heightened standard of prejudice in laches defenses for application in child support arrearage cases. In cases where parties have engaged in private agreements or modifications, the court has inextricably linked prejudice with whether a defendant's reliance on that agreement was reasonable. For any party who uses a laches defense in a child support arrearage case, and who attempts to show that the requisite prejudice is premised upon an unincorporated or private agreement, the court has created an essentially insurmountable evidentiary burden. The court's analysis demonstrates its general unwillingness to grant laches or other equitable defenses in child support arrearage cases. Although this Author contends that Fisco was correctly decided, the court's reasoning produced an unnecessarily esoteric definition of prejudice, and an undiscriminating concept of equity. The Law Court manipulated equitable principles in order to reject a defense to a child support claim. Instead, the Law Court should evaluate child support arrearage cases by focusing upon the duty of support owed to a child by the child's non-custodial parent. This Author argues that focusing upon the child's interest in, and basic legal right to parental financial support during his or her minority reveals the unconditional impropriety of entertaining laches and other equitable defenses in child support arrearage cases. Judicial decisions affecting child support should begin with the presumption that throughout their minority, children are owed a duty of support. Like the application of the “best interest of the child” standard, required in all cases pertaining to parental rights and responsibilities (custody), the Law Court should presume that child support is one of the essential factors in providing for the welfare of the children of divorce. As such, the enforcement of such orders is critical. The Law Court should decide affirmatively that equitable defenses in this context are neither available nor appropriate and should direct any inquiries toward upholding the interests of the unnamed party in every child support arrearage case -- the child.
Rebecca C. Raskin,
Fisco v. Department of Human Services: The Inequity of Equitable Defenses in Child Support Arrearage Cases,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol48/iss1/7