In re the Marriage of Pfeifer

In re the Marriage of Pfeifer, 2013 MT 129 (May 14, 2013) (4-1) (McGrath, C.J., for the majority; Rice, J., dissenting)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred by requiring Phillip to pay child support beyond the parties’ child’s 18th birthday; and (2) whether the district court should have applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel to preclude Susan’s claim for back child support.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) no, overruling Marriage of Shorten, 1998 MT 267.

Affirmed

Facts: The parties married in 1988, and divorced in 1995. They have one child, born in 1988. Under the dissolution decree, Phillip paid almost $7,000 a month child support until the child’s 18th birthday in November 2006. She did not graduate from high school until July 2007. The decree required payments to “continue until the child reaches majority, graduate from high school, or is otherwise emancipated.”
Procedural Posture & Holding: In June 2012, Susan petitioned for additional support payments from Nov. 2006-July 2007. The district court applied § 40-4-208 and granted the petition, awarding Susan $55,816. Phillip appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) The Court agrees with the district court that the decree was ambiguous as it did not state whether the support obligation continued until the earlier or later of the three dates. Section 40-4-208 provides that child support obligations continue until the later of emancipation or high school graduation unless there is an express provision in the decree. Although Phillip contends the decree expressly provides otherwise, the Court finds nothing in the decree expressly establishing a termination date for child support, and therefore finds that the statute controls.

(2) Phillip contends that he ceased child support payments upon his daughter’s 18th birthday and that Susan did not make any additional demand for payments until she filed a motion in 2012. He also contends he made substantial payments for his daughter’s needs, including college tuition. Had he known Susan would be asking for back child support, he would have asked Susan to pay for a share of his daughter’s needs. The district court did not expressly rule on the estoppel argument. It is well established that estoppel does not apply to the recovery of child support arrears. The only exception the Court has upheld was when the mother’s conduct supported an implied agreement that the father did not have to pay child support. Marriage of Shorten, 1998 MT 267. Shorten is overruled to the extent it allows for estoppel to be applied to unpaid child support claims in the absence of an agreement between the parties to accept a modification of the child support obligation.

Justice Rice’s Dissent: The decree stated that Phillip’s support obligation would continue until “the child reaches majority, graduates from high school or is otherwise emancipated.” Justice Rice does not “know how the Decree could have been clearer.” ¶ 18. He would reverse.