The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conboy, J.
9th Circuit Court - Manchester Family Division
The respondent, George W. LaRocque (Father), appeals an order of the 9th Circuit Court - Manchester Family Division (Gordon, J.) finding him in contempt for failure to pay child support, calculating his arrearages to be $102,845.52 as of December 20, 2010, and modifying his child support obligation with an effective date of January 7, 2011. We affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand.
The following facts are drawn from the record. The Father and the petitioner, Mary Beth LaRocque (Mother), divorced in February 2000. The divorce decree incorporated their permanent stipulation and uniform support order, and required the Father to "pay child support for their two children in the amount of $3,593 per month, alimony of $1,500 per month for six years, and continue to provide medical coverage for the children." The Mother was awarded the marital homestead, but was required to execute a promissory note and a mortgage in favor of the Father in the amount of $18,000 to be paid upon sale of the property or the youngest child reaching age twenty-two. The Father subsequently remarried and his second wife died in October 2010. Following her death, he received $500,000 in life insurance proceeds.
On November 8, 2010, the Mother filed a petition for contempt, alleging that the Father had failed to pay the full child support ordered, and had unilaterally reduced his child support payment when their oldest child turned eighteen. The Father objected, arguing that the parties had agreed to waive child support arrearages and to modify child support. He also moved to modify his child support obligation.
After a hearing, the trial court found that the parties never entered into such an agreement and held the Father in contempt. The court determined that arrearages as of December 20, 2010, totaled $102,845.52. The court granted the Father's request to modify child support because their oldest child turned eighteen on June 22, 2010, and was no longer in school, which "constitutes a substantial change in circumstances warranting modification of child support," and set January 7, 2011, the date the Father moved to modify child support, as the effective date of the modification. The Father now appeals.
On appeal, the Father argues that the trial court erred in finding him in contempt because the parties had agreed to waive child support arrearages and reduce child support. He further contends that even though this agreement was not approved by the court, it is not rendered unenforceable by our decision in In the Matter of Laura & Scott, 161 N.H. 333 (2010). Whether parties have entered into a contract is a factual question to be determined by the trial court. Glick v. Chocorua Forestlands Ltd. P'ship, 157 N.H. 240, 252 (2008). Accordingly, we will not disturb the trial court's determination that the Mother and the Father did not agree to waive arrearages and reduce child support unless it is lacking in evidentiary support. Guri (Cushing) v. Guri, 122 N.H. 552, 555 (1982).
The Father argues that the trial court's findings are not supported by the evidence and that the Mother's acceptance of a check for an amount less than the court-ordered child support "clearly establishes a mutual meeting of the minds." At the hearing, however, the Mother testified that she never agreed to waive any amounts due for past child support, and that she never agreed to modify the amount of child support. Although the parties presented conflicting evidence on the issue of whether there was such an agreement, the evidence was sufficient to support the trial court's finding that they did not have a contract. See In the Matter of Henry & Henry, 163 N.H. 175, 181 (2012) (conflicts in evidence are for the trial court to resolve). Moreover, the trial court correctly observed that even if the parties had entered into an agreement to modify the child support amount, such an agreement would be unenforceable absent court approval. See Scott, 161 N.H. at 336-37.
Alternatively, the Father argues that "[t]he defense of laches prevents the finding of the arrearages as [the Father] was prejudice[d] and the delay was unreasonable." "Laches is an equitable doctrine that bars litigation when a potential plaintiff has slept on his rights." Premier Capital v. Skaltsis, 155 N.H. 110, 118 (2007) (quotation omitted). Laches is not a mere matter of the elapsing of time, but is principally a question of the inequity of permitting the claim to be enforced. See id. When the delay in bringing suit is less than the applicable statute of limitations period, laches will bar suit only if the delay was unreasonable and prejudicial. Id. "We consider four factors in our analysis: (1) the knowledge of the plaintiffs; (2) the conduct of the defendants; (3) the interests to be vindicated; and (4) the resulting prejudice." Thayer v. Town of Tilton, 151 N.H. 483, 486 (2004) (quotation omitted). The trial court has broad discretion in deciding whether the circumstances justify the application of laches; we will not overturn its decision unless it is unsupported by the evidence or erroneous as a matter of law. See id.
The party asserting laches bears the burden of proving both that the delay was unreasonable and that prejudice resulted from the delay. Id. The trial court determined that the Father did not satisfy his burden. On appeal, the Father asserts that "if the Supreme Court finds that the Scott case prevents the parties from having an agreement not approved by the Court, then the defense of laches should be afforded to the defendant." As we explained above, the trial court found that there was no agreement. To the extent that the Father argues that, even absent an agreement, the facts support the defense of laches, his argument as to prejudice is essentially limited to the bare assertion that "seven years later [the Mother] complains about the fact that she is receiving [less child support than the court ordered]." The trial court, however, found no prejudice sufficient to justify the application of laches, and we agree. See id. at 486 (explaining that the defendant's interest in timely addressing the substance of a lawsuit alone is insufficient to support a finding of prejudice for purposes of the defense of laches).
The trial court granted the Father's request to modify child support.
Under the child support guidelines, in calculating the amount of child support the trial court begins with the parties' respective gross incomes. RSA 458-C:2, IV (2004); RSA ...