Imagine you have received a favorable money or property judgment under the California Family Code in your divorce or legal separation.* The judgment promises you:
- Child support, spousal support, and support arrearages to be paid by your spouse;
- For the waiver of your right to one-half of the community property interest (plus accrued growth since the date of separation) in your spouse’s pension plan benefits, you are to receive from your spouse a sum certain (say, $50,000.00) in installment payments or a lump sum (say, $40,000.00) to be paid by a date certain;
- Possession of the community-property recreational vehicle held in your spouse’s name, and you have complied with the judgment provision requiring you to pay your spouse one-half of the value of the RV in exchange for having it awarded to you as your sole and separate property; and,
- One half the net proceeds of sale of the community property marital home, but the judgment permits your spouse to reside in and have exclusive use, possession, and control of the marital home until it is sold, and it authorizes you and your spouse to agree to wait for an improved market prior to listing the property for sale, which you have both agreed to do.
Your spouse then refuses to fully comply with the judgment, i.e., for whatever reason, your spouse fails to pay some or all of the amounts owed and to deliver up the RV. Further, your spouse believes the marital home should remain unlisted and reminds you not to be worried because your spouse is paying the mortgage installments and property taxes without any right of reimbursement while he lives there. You’ve done all that you can to enforce the judgment (i.e., for our purposes, to exercise your statutory rights to collect the money and take possession of the property awarded). For instance, you have taken the time and effort and suffered the significant expense to: (i) have the family court issue and the sheriff serve writs of execution at various times on your spouse’s bank accounts; (ii) record abstracts of judgment (for non-support money judgments) and abstracts of support judgment (for child and spousal support judgments) in the county where your spouse lives, (iii) record a copy of the judgment itself in the county where the marital home is located; and, (iv) have income withholding orders (IWO) issued by the family court and served to your spouse’s fourteen consecutive employers since the judgment, reflecting how determined your spouse is to prevent you from collecting a dime in support by immediately quitting every job to which an IWO was served. Despite your best efforts to enforce the judgment, it has not been satisfied, and now over nine years have passed since the judgment was issued.
In a civil case, a ten-year period exists (starting on the date of issuance of the judgment) within which to enforce a money judgment or judgment for possession or sale of property. However, the judgment must be renewed by the Clerk of the Superior Court at any time after five years from the date of its issuance and before the end of the ten-year period. (Code Civ. Pro. sec. 683.110, subd. (a), (b).) If it is not renewed, the judgment becomes legally unenforceable after the expiration of the ten-year period. Moreover, money judgments or judgments for possession or sale of property issued in a civil case must be renewed every ten years, not just at the end of the first ten-year period.
By contrast, a money judgment or judgment for possession and sale of property under the Family Code is exempt from renewal, including judgments for child, family, or spousal support until paid in full. (Fam. Code sec. 291, subd. (a).) Failure to renew a judgment filed under the Family Code “has no effect on enforceability” in California (Fam. Code sec. 291, subd. (b)). On the other hand, renewal is permitted. (Fam. Code sec. 291, subd. (c).) If the judgment is being enforced in another state or country which does not legally recognize an exemption from renewal after 10 years, it may be wise to renew the judgment anyway, even though it is exempt from renewal under California law.
Civil judgments must be renewed every 10 years perhaps because the judgment creditor (the litigant awarded the money or property judgment) must make reasonable efforts to enforce the judgment or the judgment debtor can raise the equitable defense of laches, which prevents the enforcement of stale claims for an unreasonable delay in enforcement if the delay somehow prejudices the judgment debtor. Laches is an equitable limitations clock running against the judgment credit under the right circumstances. In arguing for or against the equitable defense of laches, the delay per se is not the focus. What matters is “why” the judgment creditor delayed enforcing the judgment and what “effect” it had on the judgment debtor. (Samuel L. Bray & Vanderbilt Law Review En Banc, A Little Bit of Laches Goes a Long Way: Notes on Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (2014), at p. 2.) Every debtor looking for a way to overcome delayed enforcement should assert laches as a defense if it arguably fits the facts.
Here is a simplistic example of circumstances under which the equitable defense of laches might prevail: At 65 years of age, a civil judgment debtor has finally saved money enough to satisfy a large judgment before retiring and living exclusively on social security retirement income. He voluntarily calls the creditor and says he’s ready to pay, but the creditor responds that he’s on a lounge chair at the pool while on an extended vacation to the Ligurian Riviera. The creditor says he’ll call the debtor when he gets back to the States. He makes no enforcement efforts otherwise, only to return eight years later to collect the debt for the first time. By then, the debtor reasonably believed he no longer owed the debt for the creditor’s unreasonable delay in collecting it. As a consequence, just months earlier he had used all of the money to purchase his first home, an extremely modest fixer-upper, using his VA benefit earned during the Korean War. It might be unfair under these circumstances to permit enforcement of the judgment, and, if so, the defense of laches precludes the renewal.
Unlike civil judgments, at least against Family Code support judgments, the judgment debtor may assert laches as a defense to enforcement only if the debt is owed to the State (e.g., CalWORKS (formerly known as AFDC) benefits were paid at some point to the custodial parent and the State sought recovery from the noncustodial parent through a court judgment). (See Fam. Code sec. 291, subd. (d).) Put another way, a Family Code support judgment creditor can never have delayed enforcement too long (i.e., have a stale claim) unless the judgment creditor is the government. Private party support judgment creditors, especially wives and the elderly in the traditional family setting, may not be employable or have the funds to enforce their judgments.
Exempting certain judgments from renewal under the Family Code makes sense. Frequently, a family court litigant owes money, support, or property to the other. Much of the time, both litigant owe money, support, or property to one another in a Family Code judgment. Further, the judgment’s principal amount or property are unascertainable until after long after judgment. A support judgment is usually an order for the future payment support and principle can accrue over the period of a child’s minority or indefinitely with regard to spousal support. Laches is unavailable as a defense to support judgments if the judgment creditor is a private party, and it would serve no particular interest to require renewal every ten years of a private party’s support judgment. Likewise, the delivery or sale of personal or real property may not occur as anticipated for various reasons. Spouses may prudently have agreed to retain a community home until better selling conditions are present. Pension benefits may not be in payment status for several decades after judgment. For these reasons, there may be far more Family Code money and property judgments than civil money or property judgments that have not been satisfied after ten years. Without the Family Code section 291 exemption from Code of Civil Procedure section 683.110, efforts to renew them would create additional administrative backlog in the courts.
In conclusion, any judgment entered under the Family Code for the payment of money, including support, from one party to the other or for the possession or sale of property is exempt from renewal. And, while it is in every judgment creditor’s best interest to do everything reasonably possible without delay to enforce his or her judgment, private party support judgment creditors are protected from the equitable defense of laches.
*Note the term “judgment” includes an order (e.g., Stipulation and Order on Request for Order, or a Findings and Order After Hearing, and the like). (Fam. Code sec. 291, subd. (g).)