In July of 2017, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued a ruling that has significant implications for all couples who are considering divorce or are currently divorced and have been awarded routine support payments.
In the case of Josephine Marie Kann, n/k/a Josephine Marie Voshell, Appellee, and Bruce Allen Kann, Appellant, the Honorable Christine M. Phillips, Judge, ruled that because a significant time (many years) had lapsed in which the ex-wife had not asked her ex-husband for support payments, he did not have to pay them.
What was the rationale for the decision behind this case, and what could it mean for you and your divorce? The answer lies in the legal term, “laches.”
What is “laches” and how is it used in legal proceedings?
To begin with, laches should not be confused with the legal term, “statute of limitations,” which establishes specific periods of time in which a lawsuit can be filed for different types of claims (breach of contract, fraud, negligence, etc.).
Invoking “laches” is an assertion that a legal right or claim should not be allowed if a long delay in asserting the claim can cause significant hardship to the defendant.
Think of it as a way to protect against a “legal ambush” for events that have long since passed. Consider the following example: An adult child learns that his/her last surviving parent has died, but waits several years following the distribution of the estate to come forward. The surviving members had believed this sibling to be dead and had allocated the estate accordingly.
To make a claim of laches the following components are required:
- a delay in bringing about the action,
- a delay that is unreasonable in its amount of time and
- a demand that prejudices, or causes significant hardship, to the defendant.
Recent Colorado Laches Ruling
In the recent Colorado case involving Josephine Marie Voshell, Appellee, and Bruce Allen Kann, Appellant, a divorce decree between the husband and wife was entered in the court in 1989. At that time, the husband agreed to pay lifetime maintenance to his ex-wife of no less than $1,200 per month. However, from 1989 through 2015 the husband did not pay any maintenance and his ex-wife never asked him to nor filed a complaint with the court for failure to follow the stipulations set out in the divorce decree.
In 2015, the ex-wife sought a legal judgment for $289,200 in unpaid maintenance and $231,436.32 in interest payments on the unpaid maintenance. As part of the defense, the ex-husband invoked laches. However, the trial court ruled that the ex-husband was required to pay maintenance because Colorado law does not recognize the laches defense, and enforced the full judgment against him.
In taking the case to the Colorado Court of Appeals, the ex-husband argued that laches should be recognized as a defense in the state of Colorado. Laches is infrequently invoked in Colorado, and typically the courts have only acknowledged it as it pertains to child support and child support combined with spousal maintenance payments.
Spousal maintenance, unlike child support, is primarily focused on ensuring that the basic needs of the financially disadvantaged spouse can be met. It is therefore viewed that if the recipient of spousal maintenance significantly delayed the enforcement of the award, it can be reasonably concluded that the spouse is not financially disadvantaged and in need to the monthly award.
The Appeals Court did not decide the merits of this case— it simply ruled that Bruce Kann should be allowed to invoke laches as part of his defense. The case was remanded back to trial court with very specific instructions in considering the scope of the laches defense, regarding both the delay and the level of prejudice against the defendant.
So what does this divorce case from 1989 mean for you?
In short, if you have a legal claim, it is essential that you act promptly. While some claims must be filed within the statute of limitations, all claims must be made within a reasonable time frame from the date in which you first knew of the claim.
No matter how solid your case may be, if the defendant can show that you knew of the claim but did not act upon it for an unreasonable amount of time and that your claim would prejudice them, you may be on the losing side.
To read the full legal opinion of the case, visit the State of Colorado Court of Appeals website.
Contact Laura Monty Law
If you or your spouse will be filing for divorce in Northern Colorado or reside in the Larimer County or Fort Collins region, and want to explore divorce options that protect your children as much as possible, do not hesitate to contact Laura Monty Law.
We provide collaborative divorce representation, divorce mediation services, legal advising for uncontested divorces, and a full array of traditional, court-based divorce and family law services in Northern Colorado. We strongly believe in taking a compassionate approach to family law, and recognize that every situation is unique.