Hammer holds party cannot collaterally attack family court order in circuit court

The June 6, 2012 Court of Appeals opinion in Hammer v. Hammer, 399 S.C. 100, 730 S.E.2d 874 (Ct. App. 2012), holds what I thought was obvious: one cannot collaterally attack a family court order in circuit court.

The Hammers entered a partial agreement resolving some equitable distribution issues in May 2008.  That agreement was made a family court order that same month.  In August 2009 the family court approved an agreement resolving the remaining issues and reaffirming the May 2008 order.

Thereafter, Mr. Hammer made repeated challenges to the May 2008 agreement.  Three times he filed a motion in family court to set aside that order.  Three times the family court rebuffed him. Eventually he filed a declaratory judgment action in circuit court, seeking to have the family court order declared void ab initio.  Mrs. Hammer filed an response, including a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The circuit court found it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to declare the family court order void.  Mr. Hammer appealed.

The Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Hammer’s contention that provisions of South Carolina’s Declaratory Judgment Act, § 15-53-10, et seq., gave the circuit court authority to determine the validity of family court orders.  It further affirmed the circuit court’s finding that the family court had exclusive subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to sections 20-3-690 and 63-3-530 of the South Carolina Code.

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