April 10, 2013
IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF JERI R. RENES AND CHARLES R. RENES UPON THE PETITION OF JERI R. RENES, PETITIONER-APPELLANT, AND CONCERNING CHARLES R. RENES, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.
Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Robert A. Hutchison, Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bower, J.
Jeri R. Renes appeals from the district court order denying her motion to enforce a decree of dissolution and application for contempt. AFFIRMED.
Considered by Eisenhauer, C.J., and Danilson and Bower, JJ.
Jeri R. Renes appeals from the district court order denying her motion to enforce a decree of dissolution and application for contempt. Jeri argues the district court improperly applied the defenses of laches and equitable estoppel, improperly held that a support obligation may be satisfied without paying through the Friend of the Court, and in failing to hold her ex-husband in contempt. Because we agree with the analysis of the district court, we affirm.
I. Background Facts and Proceedings
Jeri and Charles Renes were married in 1973. Their marriage produced two children: Robert, born in 1975, and Larissa, born in 1979. A decree of dissolution was entered in 1983. As a part of the decree, Charles was ordered to pay child support of $200 per month per child until certain conditions were met.*fn1
All payments were to be made through the Friend of the Court. All parties agree this did not happen.
Nearly thirty years after the decree, and well over a decade after the obligation ended, Jeri brought this action seeking over $155,000 in back child support and interest. Charles admits that he did not pay his obligation through the Friend of the Court as ordered but testified he paid the support directly to Jeri as the parties had agreed.
The district court found Jeri's testimony was not believable, that she lacked credibility, and overwhelming evidence supported Charles's affirmative defenses of laches and equitable estoppel.
II. Standard of Review
Our review is de novo. In re Marriage of Smiley, 518 N.W.2d 376, 378 (Iowa 1994). "We examine the entire record and adjudicate anew rights on the issues properly presented." Id. Though we are not bound by the findings of the trial court, we give proper weight to them, particularly on issues of credibility. Id.
All parties agree that Charles failed to pay support through the Friend of the Court. The question on appeal is whether laches and promissory estoppel prevent Jeri from recovering sums she claims are past-due.*fn2
The elements of promissory estoppel "are: (1) a clear and definite oral agreement, (2) proof that plaintiff acted to his detriment in reliance thereon, and
(3) a finding that the equities entitle plaintiff to [the] relief." In re Marriage of Harvey, 523 N.W.2d 755, 756--57 (Iowa 1994). In Harvey, a father argued that an oral agreement existed between him and his ex-wife where he would not pay child support so long as a child was living with him. Id. at 757. Our supreme court agreed, primarily because it found the testimony of the ex-wife unconvincing. Id. Of particular importance was the ex-wife's failure, despite many opportunities, to assert her rights during the period of time in question. Id.
Mindful of the admonition in Harvey that equitable estoppel should
only be applied in cases of this kind on rare occasions, we agree with
the analysis of the district court. See id. at 756. Charles testified that he reached an
agreement with Jeri where he would directly support the family. Though
evidence of the agreement is in conflict, the credible evidence
strongly supports Charles's position.*fn3 Jeri,
despite decades of opportunity, has failed, until recently, to assert
her claims or bring an action to enforce the decree.*fn4
Jeri testified that, despite low wages throughout most of the
period, she never applied for or received public assistance which
reinforces Charles's testimony that he was continuing to support the
family as the parties had agreed. Over the decades, Charles bought and
sold real estate. As the district court recognized, these transactions
would have been impossible, due to liens on the property, if Charles
had not paid his child support obligation.
Having found that a clear and definite oral agreement was in place, we
find that Charles expended substantial sums of money for Jeri and the
children to his detriment in reliance upon the agreement.*fn5
Absent the agreement, Charles likely would not have spent his
scarce resources in this manner. The equities strongly entitle Charles
Having determined that the doctrine of promissory estoppel precludes Jeri's request in this case, we need not reach the issue of whether a party is required to make payments through the Friend of the Court.*fn6
Jeri argues the district court erred in failing to find Charles in contempt. Contempt is discretionary. In re Marriage of Swan, 526 N.W.2d 320, 327 (Iowa 1995). The trial court was not required to hold Charles in contempt even if Jeri had proven her allegations. See id. Having concluded that Charles satisfied his support obligations, the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to find him in contempt.