Court of Appeals publishes opinion on the inapplicability of status of limitations to support obligations

Posted Wednesday, September 14th, 2022 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Child Support, Contempt/Enforcement of Orders, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys, South Carolina Appellate Decisions, South Carolina Specific

On September 7, 2022, the Court of Appeals published an opinion in Holland v. Holland, 438 S.C. 69, 881 S.E.2d 766 (Ct.App. 2021), reversing the family court’s determination that Wife’s attempt to collect a child support obligation in 2017 that ended in 2004 was barred by South Carolina’s statute of limitations.  The opinion is curious in that it withdraws and substitutes an unpublished August 4, 2021, opinion without appearing to make any substantive changes.  Perhaps the Court of Appeals panel simply determined (long after the fact) that the opinion should be published.

In Holland, Father, who has not lived in South Carolina at any time since 1999, was originally paying child support via wage withholding.  In August 1999, Father was terminated from the employer who was withholding his wages. In October 2020, he moved without informing Mother.  Father worked various jobs since 1999 but never resumed wage withholding or paid child support.

In August 2017, the clerk’s office issued a rule to show cause against Father for the unpaid child support.  Father filed an answer raising defenses of statute of limitations, res judicata, collateral estoppel, estoppel by judgment, and laches. The family court dismissed the rule, finding S.C. Code § 15-39-30 applied and Mother’s request for child support was time barred as the obligation ended ten years prior to the enforcement attempt.  That code section states: “Executions may issue upon final judgments or decrees at any time within ten years from the date of the original entry thereof and shall have active energy during such period, without any renewal or renewals thereof, and this whether any return may or may not have been made during such period on such executions.”

Mother filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that section’s language did not apply to actions to enforce child support orders.  When the family court denied her motion, she appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that code section does not apply to child support obligations.  It noted no cases applied this code section to child support obligations and cited cases in which collection was allowed over a decade past the obligation ending.  It noted there was no specific time limitation in the children’s code on the collection of child support. It finally noted cases in which the Supreme Court held laches is not a valid defense to support collection, including a citation to Ables v. Gladden, 378 S.C. 558, 664 S.E.2d 442 (2008), which was specific to child support collection.

Finally, the Court of Appeals noted that family court procedural rules required personal service in enforcement actions. Rule 14(e), SCRFC. It addressed concerns that an obligor could  evade service and allow a support obligation to become time barred: “Without an address for the defaulting parent, options for the service of process on the parent are limited. Consequently, the defaulting parent may be able to avoid enforcement for ten years with relative ease.”

Because it found S.C. Code § 15-39-30 did not bar Mother’s child support collection claim, the Court of Appeals remanded the matter back to the family court for an evidentiary hearing on the merits.

I never thought there was a statute of limitations on support collection.  However, a panel of the Court of Appeals was sufficiently concerned on this issue that it decided, one year after it initially issued its decision, to publish that decision.

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