On June 28, 2016, the HAWSCT issued a unanimous opinion in Karyn Eileen Hermann v. Kenneth Ross Hermann, SCWC-12-0000060, remanding a case involving issues of child support and reimbursement for overpayments of support to the Family Court because the findings of fact issued by the lower court were not sufficient to provide the appellate court with enough information to determine what the court meant when it ruled that reimbursement was precluded by estoppel.
The issues in this case involved the husband’s responsibility for child support for the parties’ two children (a son and a daughter) under the divorce decree and later amendment to the decree. The Husband claimed that he overpaid child support, and sought recovery of the overpayments. The divorce decree obligated Husband to pay a certain amount in support until the children reached the age of 18 (or stopped going to high school, whichever occurred last). The decree reserved any support that may be owed later. Subsequently, Husband sought sole custody of the son, which eventually resulted in an amendment to the support obligations under the decree. The amendment withdrew the support obligations of the decree, and substituted the requirements that Husband pay an amount to Wife for the daughter, and that Wife pay to Husband a different amount for the son over whom he had obtained custody. Two months after the amendment, Husband received correspondence from the Child Support Enforcement Agency that he had overpaid child support. Although Husband asked Wife to reimburse him, she refused. Then, four years later, after Wife filed a motion for post-decree relief, Husband agreed to pay for the daughter’s college. Two years after the daughter began attending college, Husband sought to terminate his support obligation and to seek reimbursement for the amounts he had overpaid in support.
The family court denied Husband’s motion, deciding that he was not entitled to reimbursement and that he would continue to support payments for his daughter. Essentially, the family court held that he was estopped from seeking reimbursement because of his delay in raising the claimed overpayment, and that the overpayment resulted from both parties’ delay in reaching the amendment to the decree. As to the support for the daughter, the Family Court held that Husband had also waited too long to challenge any overpayment, and that his obligation to pay college expenses was distinct from his support obligation. The ICA vacated and remanded.
On cert, the HAWSCT held that the Husband’s obligation to pay support for his son ended, pursuant to the terms of the amendment, nine months before the amendment became effective. The HAWSCT also held that the Family Court’s estoppel finding required remand because neither party raised the issue of laches – which the ICA presumed from the Family Court’s use of the estoppel language but the Family Court’s findings did not include any findings “relating to the prejudice prong” of laches. Slip. Op. at 29. Thus, because “the basis for the family court’s silence on whether the prejudice prong was satisfied is uncertain,” the HAWSC vacated and remanded the case to the Family Court. Id. at 30.
Also, because the Family Court’s decision did not actually specify laches as the basis for its estoppel decision, the HAWSCT explained that “[a]lternatively, if the family court was applying another legal doctrine, the court’s findings and conclusions should so clarify.” Id.
The HAWSCT also instructed the Family Court on remand to determine whether it was appropriate for the court to order continued support of the daughter by Husband after the expiration of the date in the decree for such support. And, the HAWSCT held that the reimbursement of support for the daughter also suffered from the same lack of specificity in the Family Court’s decision related to estoppel as that related to its similar findings for son’s support.
The overall moral of this case, as with a number of family law cases over the last couple years from the HAWSCT (and non-family law cases), is that the lower courts need to include more specificity in their decisions – otherwise, on appeal, the appellate courts will lack sufficient findings to make effectively any other decision than to remand the case.
The full opinion, authored by Justice Pollack, is available here.