Can Child Support Arrearages Be Forgiven?

Not unless there is a bona fide dispute whether they are owed.
In a case called In re: Sabine and Toshio M., the California Court of Appeals considered whether child support arrearages could be forgiven. The court held that when there is a bona fide dispute over how much is owed, a compromise will be approved. But when there is no dispute, arrearages cannot be reduced, even by agreement.

In this case, the father owed the mother over $300,000 in past due child support. He did not dispute the amount; he offered to settle in exchange for a payment of $100,000. The mother agreed to accept $100,000 in full payment of all past due child support owed. Although the mother eventually received the $100,000, she did not receive it within thirty days, as required by the agreement.

In a later proceeding, the question before the court was whether the father still owed the remaining $200,000 in past due child support. The court held that he did owe that amount:

The principal question on appeal is whether the parties could lawfully forgive arrearages - overdue support - where the husband agreed to pay only a portion of what he owed. We conclude that such an agreement is unenforceable where it does not resolve any bona fide disputes between the parties and is offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. . . . That is not to say a trial court lacks authority to determine whether any arrearages exist and, if so, the amount due. Nor are the parties precluded from settling all disputes that might affect the calculation of arrearages. . . . But an accord and satisfaction requires the existence of a bona fide dispute concerning the debt. Here, there was none. [The father] did not deny the existence of the arrearages, question the meaning of the Judgment, or raise any issue concerning the amount he owed. Nor did he contend that the Judgment was invalid or void as a result of extrinsic fraud, lack of service of process, or any other reason. Quite simply, [the father] offered [the mother] less than one-third of the arrearages in exchange for a release as to the rest. We fail to see how this resolved a bona fide dispute.

Although this ruling is legally correct, one wonders whether it is the best public policy. After all, $100,000 in child support - presumably not obtainable in any other way than by the agreement in this case - is better than no support at all, but to approve the agreement would reward the father for his failure to pay. On the other hand, it seems inequitable for the wife to have promised to forgive the balance of the child support, then back out of her agreement. But as these former spouses no doubt learned, all is fair in love and war.

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