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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Missing Marine Can’t|Dodge Child Support

(CN) — A U.S. Marine said to have vanished from his ex-wife and two children for 37 years could be on the hook for overdue child support, the Maine Supreme Court ruled.

Catherine Brochu married Richard McLeod in 1970 and they had two children.

The couple separated in 1977, and McLeod agreed to pay Brochu $160 per month, as long as she did not remarry or live with another man for 18 months.

However, McLeod allegedly disappeared after signing the agreement. When Brochu called his Marine base, she was told that McLeod had gone AWOL, according to court records. His family also could not find him.

Brochu remarried in 1979 and stopped looking for McLeod. The Marines gave him a bad-conduct discharge in 1996.

In 2014, the couple's 42-year-old son asked Brochu for information about McLeod. She used a Google search and found McLeod's California address in less than five minutes.

Brochu filed a motion to enforce almost four decades' worth of child and spousal support payments.

At trial, Brochu said she made no effort to find McLeod from 1979 to 2014.

McLeod replied that Brochu had left him and he couldn't find her or the children, although he hadn't looked for the children since the 1970s.

The trial court dismissed Brochu's claim, citing the defense of laches, or delay in seeking relief.

Brochu appealed, arguing that laches is not an available defense in child support cases.

The Maine Supreme Court agreed in a Sept. 20 decision written by Justice Andrew M. Mead.

"Child support arrearages are money judgments," he wrote. "We have previously explained that 'the right to the payment of [child] support becomes vested as it becomes due,' and that a child support order is 'essentially a judgment in monthly installments.'"

Therefore, Mead added, child support arrearages "are not subject to a statute of limitations."

He noted that other states — including New York, Vermont and Indiana — have reached similar conclusions.

"Allowing the assertion of laches in child support arrearage cases has the inevitable dual consequence of financially rewarding a parent for shirking his or her obligation to the child and penalizing the child for a parent's delay in seeking support," Mead wrote. "The child's needs are the primary focus of an order awarding child support, not the diligence of the parent."

However, Mead ruled that the doctrine of laches can be used as a defense in spousal-support cases because the element of penalizing a child does not come into play.

"In claims for spousal support arrearages, however, it is the same person who had the onus of seeking enforcement who suffers the consequences of a failure to seek enforcement in a timely fashion," he wrote.

Applying that doctrine to the spousal support issue, Mead ruled in favor of McLeod.

"Although it is uncertain whether she would have found McLeod if she had looked before 1996, from at least that point forward the U.S. government knew of his whereabouts and presumably could have relayed that information to her," he wrote.

Mead added, "Moreover, the ease with which Brochu found McLeod's information upon actually looking supports the court's finding that Brochu unreasonably delayed seeking enforcement for the nearly twenty-year period between 1996 and 2014."

The Main Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for further action for consideration of the child support issue.

Brochu's attorney Joe Lewis said in a statement that he and his client "are quite happy with the outcome."

"I was very confident that the Law Court would find that the defendant failed to meet his burden of proving the prejudice element required for a successful laches defense in this case, but I am thrilled that the Law Court agreed with me that laches is simply inappropriate in a child support arrears case," Lewis said. "That was an open question under Maine Law, and now it's not, and that's a good thing."

McLeod's attorney Brett Gabor told Courthouse News that his client "presented a rational argument that at some point it should be possible to raise a laches defense to a child support debt."

"It seemed to us that there should be some length of time, and some amount of delay in seeking enforcement that could rebut the policy arguments in favor of strictly enforcing a child support debt," Gabor said. "In particular, we argued that the extremely lengthy delay meant that enforcement would no longer serve the primary purpose of the child support order. Nevertheless, the Law Court held that laches is simply never available as a defense to a child support debt."

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