State, Dept. of Human Services ex rel. Parker v. Irizarry

Decision Date19 September 1997
Docket NumberNo. 950324,950324
Citation945 P.2d 676
Parties326 Utah Adv. Rep. 28 STATE of Utah, DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES ex rel. Cathy S. PARKER, Plaintiffs and Petitioners, v. Harry D. IRIZARRY, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Jan Graham, Atty. Gen., Carol Clawson, Solicitor Gen., Annina M. Mitchell, Billy L. Walker, Jr., Asst. Attys. Gen., Salt Lake City, for plaintiffs.

Barbara K. Polich, Elisabeth R. Blattner, Salt Lake City, for defendant.

HOWE, Justice:

We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' affirmance of the trial court's bench ruling that Cathy S. Parker's claim against Harry D. Irizarry for pregnancy and confinement expenses and reimbursement of child-rearing expenses from April 15, 1985, to May 30, 1989, is barred by the doctrine of equitable estoppel. State Dep't of Human Servs. ex rel. Parker v. Irizarry, 893 P.2d 1107, 1110 (Ct.App.), cert. granted, 910 P.2d 425 (Utah 1995). The court of appeals ruled that the trial court acted within its discretion in applying the doctrine of equitable estoppel to a situation where a parent made a claim for reimbursement of child-rearing expenses, and upheld the trial court's conclusion that the requirements of equitable estoppel had been satisfied. Id.


Before enumerating the facts, we address the standard of review. An appellate court "will not reverse the findings of fact of a trial court sitting without a jury unless they are 'against the clear weight of the evidence,' thus making them 'clearly erroneous.' " MacKay v. Hardy, 896 P.2d 626, 629 (Utah 1995) (quoting In re Estate of Bartell, 776 P.2d 885, 886 (Utah 1989) (additional internal quotation omitted)). In this case, the parties do not challenge the trial court's factual findings, and the court of appeals accepted them as correct. An appellate court reviews the trial court's conclusions of law for correctness. Newspaper Agency Corp. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 938 P.2d 266 (Utah 1997); State v. Christensen, 866 P.2d 533, 535 (Utah 1993).

The issue of whether equitable estoppel has been proven is a classic mixed question of fact and law. As we observed in State v. Pena, 869 P.2d 932 (Utah 1994), we give trial court determinations of such mixed questions differing degrees of deference, depending on several considerations. The doctrine of equitable estoppel is simply stated, yet it is applicable to a wide variety of factual and legal situations. The variety of fact-intensive circumstances involved weighs heavily against lightly substituting our judgment for that of the trial court. Id. at 939. Therefore, we properly grant the trial court's decision a fair degree of deference when we review the mixed question of whether the requirements of the law of estoppel have been satisfied in any given factual situation.


At the outset, we briefly recite the trial court's uncontested findings of fact. Parker and Irizarry began a relationship in June of 1984 which led to Parker's pregnancy, discovered in July or August of 1984. When Irizarry visited Parker in California, where she had moved in July, she informed him of her pregnancy and of her belief that he was the father. He responded by offering his support to her. After returning to Utah, he telephoned and wrote to her several times. Parker apparently did not attempt to contact Irizarry during this time. On at least three occasions, once in September of 1984, once in November of 1984, and once in January of 1985, he telephoned her in California, during which conversations she told him that she did not want any money, was able to take care of herself, wanted nothing to do with him, and intended to name her offspring "Parker." In November of 1984, Irizarry sent a letter to Parker in which he thanked her for accepting approximately twenty dollars from him. There appears to have been no further contact between the parties until June of 1985 when Parker telephoned Irizarry and left a message with his roommate that she had delivered twins in April of 1985 and that she had named them "Parker."

Irizarry married his current wife in October of 1985, started a family, and moved to Puerto Rico. Parker hired a detective to locate him in February of 1987. These efforts were unsuccessful, and he had no notice that she was looking for him. Parker's mother wrote a letter to a friend of Irizarry's in August of 1987 containing a message for Irizarry that concluded with the statement, "We are not concerned about taking him to court.... His court will come later--he cannot say that they are not his children there." The trial court found that Irizarry received the letter when he returned to Salt Lake in September of 1987 and that Parker was apparently unaware of this letter and its contents. After seeing Irizarry in the Salt Lake City Airport, Parker filed her complaint in this action on May 30, 1989.

The trial court ruled that on these facts there was sufficient evidence to establish the elements of equitable estoppel. 1 Parker argues that estoppel should not apply because (1) a right to reimbursement that has not yet come into being cannot be waived in advance, (2) the right to child support should be independent of the personal relationship between the biological parents, and (3) an unwed father subject to the delayed filing of a paternity action is adequately protected by Utah Code Ann. § 78-45a-3, which provides, "The father's liabilities for past education and necessary support are limited to a period of four years next preceding the commencement of an action." We will address Parker's arguments as we examine the relationship between child support, reimbursement for child-rearing expenses, and the doctrine of equitable estoppel.

A. Distinction Between "Child Support" and "Reimbursement"

We begin by noting that no statement of rejection on Parker's part, no matter how strong, could have legally defeated the children's right to support. Utah's child support laws and the guidelines that accompany them are designed to maximize support to children from both of their parents. See Utah Code Ann. § 78-45-3(1) (1996) ("Every father shall support his child ...."); id. § 78-45-4(1) ("Every woman shall support her child...."). We emphasized in Hills v. Hills, 638 P.2d 516, 517 (Utah 1981), that the right of minor children to support cannot be "bartered away, extinguished, estopped or in any way defeated by the agreement or conduct of the parents." (Citing Gulley v. Gulley, 570 P.2d 127 (Utah 1977).) It is well established that "[e]very parent has the duty to support the children he has brought into the world," and this duty is inalienable. Gulley, 570 P.2d at 128-29. "Moreover, the minor children who are the beneficiaries of this duty [and] not parties to [an agreement relinquishing support] ... [cannot] be bound thereby." Id. at 129. Therefore, "the just and logical consequence of the duty of parents to support their children is that if they are left in need and a third party provides them necessities, he is subrogated to the child's right and may obtain reimbursement therefor." Id. (emphasis added) (footnote omitted).

In the instant case, however, the issue on appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion in applying equitable estoppel to bar Parker's claim for reimbursement of child-rearing expenses she has paid. This is not an action for "past due child support," as Parker incorrectly represents. This is an action for reimbursement to a parent, not a third party, of monies already expended in support of children who by Parker's own admission were well cared for and not left in need. She testified specifically that the twins had never gone without food, clothing, or shelter. In Wasescha v. Wasescha, 548 We clearly distinguished between actual child support and reimbursement in Larsen v. Larsen, 5 Utah 2d 224, 227, 300 P.2d 596, 598 (Utah 1956), stating:

P.2d 895 (Utah 1976), a mother seeking retroactive payments claimed, much as Parker does here, that her action was not for reimbursement because all sums recovered would be placed in trust for the children. This court rejected that reasoning and applied estoppel, stating that "there seems to be an admission that the children's right to support amply was supplied ..., which would eliminate their need for support or, if you please, double support." Id. at 896.

[B]ecause the state is interested in the child's welfare the parents cannot effectively release future payments of support money by agreeing with the other to that effect. However, this does not mean that a mother may not by her actions or representations, or both, preclude herself from recovering past due installments of support money to reimburse her for the money which she has spent for the support of the child.

Thus, once paternity is legally established, a biological mother cannot disclaim future child support on behalf of her children. Before the father is legally identified, however, he has no legal obligation to the child, and it only stands to reason that a payment cannot become "past due" until it initially becomes due. Consequently, although section 78-45a-3 recognizes a claim to retroactive payment for the four years preceding the filing of the suit, such payments are "reimbursement" rather than "child support."

This conceptual separation of "reimbursement" and "child support" recognizes the hard realities. Genuine child support must be available to meet the current needs of the child, and payments made later cannot alter the level of support that the children have already received. Understanding this, we decline to employ the euphemism "back child support" for payments that were not available to meet past needs and are not even legally required to be used for the children's present and future needs. See Larsen, 300 P.2d at 598. Only "reimbursement" accurately describes such payments.

Parker actively repudiated the establishment of a child support obligation, without which a right to...

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