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Termination of Parental Rights Terminates Child Support Obligations as A Matter of Law

The defendant fathered three children. He failed to pay a preliminary child support order issued against him. Thus welfare was collected and expended on the children. The District Attorney’s office in Orange County then filed a complaint for welfare reimbursement by defendant. Orange County got a preliminary child support order in 1990, but defendant did not make any payments. The district attorney’s office did not do anything to prosecute the welfare reimbursement case. However, at the same time Orange County pursued termination of defendant’s parental rights, which were terminated in 1995.  The county then obtained a default judgement for the very large amount of money – more than defendant could ever pay. Father’s Orange County family law attorney then filed a motion to dismiss due to a failure to bring the case to trial within five years. The Orange County family law court granted the motion to dismiss. The county appealed.

Does termination of parental rights by operation of law end an earlier preliminary child support order? Yes it does. The trend until this case was for an appellate court to reverse the family law court’s decision to dismiss the “usual” welfare reimbursement case. This case is different because it involved a reimbursement case as well as termination of parental rights. The outcome therefore is different than that in County of Orange v. Quinn. There is an exemption to the five-year rule, which requires a party to bring a case to trial within five years of commencing the action when a child support order has been made. However there is an anomaly in the Code of Civil Procedure regarding the five-year rule is read in isolation in that it seemingly gives greater protection support orders issued for divorce cases only. The Family Code however provides the solution for the anomaly by expressly providing that all child support orders, regardless of attachment to divorce cases or not, must continue unless terminated by the court or by operation of law pursuant to the Family Code. In other words, a pendente lite child support order is not forever immune from the five-year rule, and a family law court can dismiss a case if it no longer carries a continuing child support order. The Court notes that this simply makes sense. It would be “ridiculous” to contend that a termination of duty of support via termination of parental rights is not also a termination by operation of law per the Family Code.

Here, defendant lost all of his parental rights for each of his three children on January 3, 1995. At that date the children were no longer his. Therefore child support obligations were also no longer his. The secondary issue here pertains to whether the time from 1990-1995 should toll the running of the five years per the Code of Civil Procedure. Once a child support order terminates, there is nothing to guard a case from dismissal pursuant to the five-year rule, which provides that a support order is valid until terminated, but does not preclude trial on the complaint. The time between 1990-1995 wherein the support order was valid, did not toll the running of the five years.

Defendant’s support order terminated when his parental rights also ended. At that time there was then nothing to insulate the case from dismissal via the five-year rule. The Court of Appeal located in Orange County thus found that the Orange County family law court properly dismissed the action for failure to prosecute.

County of Orange v. Rosales (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1214