Helgestad v. Vargas

Decision Date18 November 2014
Docket NumberG048888
Citation231 Cal.App.4th 719,180 Cal.Rptr.3d 318
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesAllyson HELGESTAD, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. George VARGAS, Defendant and Appellant.

Law Offices of Milo F. DeArmey and Matthew S. DeArmey, Santa Ana, for Defendant and Appellant.

No appearance for Plaintiff and Respondent.




Family law is not getting any easier. Consider this scenario: A couple live together and have two children. They do not marry. Then they separate. The couple agrees to a paternity action judgment, which establishes the father's paternity, his right to visitation, and fixes a monthly monetary child support payment to be made to the mother who will have primary physical custody of the children. Later the couple attempt a reconciliation; the father moves into the residence of the children and the mother. After about nine months, the reconciliation fails, and the father moves out. Issue: Can the father obtain any credit for actual, in-the-home child support he afforded the children during the nine months he lived with them and the mother?

The question is one of first impression in California. (See Annot., Right to Credit on Child Support Arrearages for Time Parties Resided Together After Separation or Divorce (2002) 104 A.L.R.5th 605, 610-612 [absence of Cal. cases] ) (hereinafter “ALR Annotation, Credit for Time Resided ”.) Had the original order been made in a marital--as distinct from paternity--action, and had the couple simply switched custody so that the children went to live with the father instead of attempting reconciliation, there seems to be no question that a line of California cases beginning with Jackson v. Jackson (1975) 51 Cal.App.3d 363, 124 Cal.Rptr. 101 would allow such credit. In fact, family law has developed a shorthand term for credits. They are called Jacksoncredits,” after the first case to allow for them. But whether the same rules obtain in a paternity action as in a dissolution action has not previously been addressed.

The trial court concluded the father here, appellant George Vargas, was not eligible for any such Jackson credits, because this case did not fit the Jackson pattern of a child support order that originated in a divorce proceeding, and also because there was not a total reversal of custody, but rather a period of cohabitation--shared custody--in the context of an attempted reconciliation. We reverse because we believe the same equitable considerations that apply to support orders arising out of marital cases should also apply to support orders arising out of paternity cases. We see no reason to differentiate total changes of custody from periods of living together in the same household; actual support is actual support.


The Orange County Superior Court no longer is able to provide court reporters without charge, forcing these parties of limited means to resort to an “agreed” statement--rather than a reporter's transcript--to have meaningful access to appellate review. “The record on appeal may consist wholly or partly of an agreed statement.” (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.134(a)(1).) Fortunately the parties were able to agree on one, probably because the essential facts are simple: Allyson Helgestad and George Vargas lived together from 2005 to October 2009. During that period they had two children. Allyson and George separated in October 2009. The next month Allyson filed this paternity action (No. 09P001418). In May 2010, the parties agreed to a judgment under which George would pay a certain amount in child support commencing June 1, 2010, and George would be entitled to specified visitation. The judgment was signed by a court commissioner on May 25, 2010, and filed that day.

But sometime between December 2010 and January 2011, George moved back in with Allyson and the children in her residence. During this time he paid “rent” to Allyson's father, who owned the building (she had not been paying any rent previously). George, Allyson and the children all lived together in a family relationship from at least January 2011 until mid-August 2011. George then moved out again. George asked the court for a determination of his arrearages in May 2012. The order on that motion was made in July 2013 and included a determination George was ineligible for any credit for the period of eight or nine months of attempted reconciliation spanning the first two-thirds of 2011. George has timely appealed from that order.


In denying George credit for any actual child support he might have provided for the couple's two children during the period of reconciliation and living together as a family in 2011, the trial court proffered four reasons. Three of those reasons apply categorically in such a way as to preclude even the possibility of credit for a payor parent who had moved back in with the children. The three categorical reasons were: (1) George was not entitled to Jackson credits” because the Jackson line of cases all involved total switchovers of custody where the previously noncustodial parent became the sole custodial parent.1 (2) George should have brought a formal order to show cause (OSC) based on changed circumstances when he moved back in with Allyson and the children. And (3) as a matter of statute (Fam. Code, § 36022 ), the only relief allowed for support during reconciliation is when the support order is pendente lite, and this was not. The trial court also gave one fact-based reason: (4) George had to have a roof over his own head anyway, so the fact he moved in with Allyson and the children and paid rent to her father merited no credit.

We address each of these considerations below. But before those reasons can be addressed adequately, a canvass of the relevant case law is required. No fewer than three distinct lines of California case law shed light on the problem of whether Jackson credits may be available in paternity cases involving reconciliations. There is also a small body of out-of-state litigation bearing on the issue. (See A.L.R. Annot., Credit for Time Resided, supra, 104 A.L.R. 5th 605.) While none of these are determinative, they inform our decision.

A. The Jackson Equitable Credit Line

We begin with Jackson itself. Jackson addressed the basic pattern: A married couple divorced, and custody of their teenage daughter was awarded to the mother. Then, seven months later, the mother agreed to let the daughter live with her father. When, roughly two years after the change, the father sought to formally modify the decree to eliminate the support payments, the mother “retaliated” by trying to execute on the father's assets based on support arrearages accumulated during the period the daughter had been living with him. The trial court refused to quash the writ of execution obtained by the mother, ruling the father's modification effort was an attempt to retroactively modify child support. The appellate court reversed. (See Jackson, supra, 51 Cal.App.3d 363, 365-366, 124 Cal.Rptr. 101.) The Jackson court reasoned that all child support orders are an exercise of the trial court's “equitable power and are designed to compel satisfaction of the child support obligation which exists apart from the marriage status.” (Id. at pp. 366-367, 124 Cal.Rptr. 101.) After first briefly referencing a series of five previous opinions3 that had indicated trial courts have the “equitable” power to deny enforcement of a support order when equity requires it (see id. at pp. 367–368, 124 Cal.Rptr. 101 [the word “equitable” appears in the Jackson court's treatment of each of the five cases] ) the court arrived at the essence of the case: It was undisputed that the father had “provided a home and support” for the daughter after she had commenced living with him, and in doing so had expended amounts in “excess” of the formal order, so the trial court did, indeed, have the discretion to either quash the writ entirely, or permit only partial enforcement of it. (Id. at p. 368, 124 Cal.Rptr. 101.)

Next came In re Marriage of Matthews, supra, 101 Cal.App.3d 811, 161 Cal.Rptr. 879, a case which briefly dealt with the issue of a father who provided a home for his children during summer vacation. The trial court reduced the normal child support payments by 50 percent during those months. (Id. at p. 819, 161 Cal.Rptr. 879.) Without extended analysis, or any reference to the Jackson opinion, the Matthews court simply concluded “it is equitable to reduce or terminate child support payments for those full months in which the children reside with the non-custodial parent.” (Ibid. )

In re Marriage of Okum, supra, 195 Cal.App.3d 176, 240 Cal.Rptr. 458 was, like Jackson, another writ of execution motion to quash case based on the payor parent's having “de facto sole physical custody” of two children, a boy and a girl. (Id. at p. 180, 240 Cal.Rptr. 458.) This time, however, since Jackson had been on the books for 12 years, the trial court quashed the writ of execution as to the arrearage based on the girl's support. (There was a factual issue as to whether the boy also lived with the father.) Explicitly relying on Jackson, the Okum court observed that the trial court's order vis-à -vis the girl was correct: The father was entitled to “equitable” relief as to her. (Id. at p. 182, 240 Cal.Rptr. 458.) As to the boy, the father lost. The court noted the mother kept a bedroom in her own home for him when he stayed with her, she paid for much of his support when he was in her care, and, overall, the mother “substantially complied with the custody agreement and therefore, [the father] was obligated to pay support.” (Id. at pp. 182-183, 240 Cal.Rptr. 458.)4

The most recent case in the Jackson line is In re Marriage of Trainotti, supra, 212 Cal.App.3d 1072, 261 Cal.Rptr. 36. Like Okum, this case was essentially a replay of Jackson, but the opinion provided more doctrinal development. Three years after a child support...

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