In re the Marriage of William Michael Johnson, Petitioner, and Carolyn S. Johnson. Respondent
to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No.
Attorneys for Petitioner: Holland & Hart LLP Christina F.
Gomez Kristina R. Van Bockern Denver, Colorado
appearance by or on behalf of Respondent Carolyn S. Johnson
Attorneys for Amicus Curiae American Academy of Matrimonial
Lawyers, Colorado Chapter: American Academy of Matrimonial
Lawyers Kathleen A. Hogan Denver, Colorado
Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Family Law Section of the
Colorado Bar Association: Epstein Patierno, P.C. Christina
Patierno Denver, Colorado Cox Baker & Page, LLC Nathan
M.J. Dowell Castle Rock, Colorado Sherr Puttmann Akins Lamb
PC Courtney Radtke McConomy Greenwood Village, Colorado
¶1 This case concerns whether a father may rely on the
doctrine of laches to defend against a mother's claim for
the interest on his child support debt. Over fifty years ago,
in Hauck v. Schuck, 353 P.2d 79, 81 (Colo. 1960), we
decided that laches does not apply to a claim for unpaid
child support that accrued within the statutory limitations
period. In the present case, a division of the court of
appeals extended Hauck's reasoning to a claim
for interest on such arrearages and concluded that laches
could not apply to bar one parent's right to collect
interest on arrearages owed by the other parent. See In
re Marriage of Johnson, 2014 COA 145, ¶ 17, P.3d .
In a special concurrence, Judge Berger noted that a more
recent case from this court, Hickerson v. Vessels,
2014 CO 2, 316 P.3d 620, cast doubt on the division
majority's conclusion. See In re Marriage of
Johnson, ¶ 24 (Berger, J., specially concurring).
We granted certiorari to consider whether laches is an
appropriate defense in an action to collect interest on
past-due child support and in doing so, to resolve the
arguable tension in our precedent. We now conclude that laches
may be asserted as a defense to a claim for interest on child
support arrearages, and we therefore reverse the judgment of
the court of appeals and remand this case to that court for
further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Facts and Procedural History
In 1983, the district court entered a decree dissolving the
marriage of the petitioner, William Michael Johnson, and the
respondent, Carolyn S. Johnson. The decree further ordered
Mr. Johnson to pay $400 per month in child support to Mrs.
Johnson, to whom the court had granted custody of the
couple's two minor children. The decree did not specify
when Mr. Johnson's child support obligation would end,
but the law at the time presumed that it would continue until
his youngest child reached the age of majority, which was
then twenty-one. See Koltay v. Koltay, 667 P.2d
1374, 1376 (Colo. 1983) (citing section 2-4-401(6), C.R.S.
(1973 & 1980 Repl. Vol. 1B), for Colorado's age of
In September 2012, Mrs. Johnson filed a "Verified Motion
for Entry of Support Judgment." In this motion, Mrs.
Johnson asserted that Mr. Johnson owed her $54, 320 in child
support arrearages, plus $838, 965.32 in interest that had
accrued between the entry of the Johnsons' divorce decree
in 1983 and their youngest child's twenty-first birthday
in 1997. Although Mr. Johnson responded by asserting a number
of defenses, including the statute of limitations and laches,
the magistrate entered judgment against him for the total
amount requested of $893, 285.32.
Mr. Johnson sought district court review of the
magistrate's order, and the district court found that the
magistrate had clearly erred in entering judgment for the
full amount. Applying section 14-10-122(1)(c), C.R.S. (2016),
which provides that an order requiring the payment of child
support becomes a final money judgment when it is due and not
paid, the district court reasoned that such a payment is
subject to the twenty-year limitations period set forth in
section 13-52-102(2)(a), C.R.S. (2016), for executing on
judgments. The court further found that the doctrine of
laches was inapplicable "to actions for recovery of past
due child support." Accordingly, the court vacated the
magistrate's order and remanded the case with
instructions to conduct an evidentiary hearing to
re-determine, in accordance with the court's order, the
amount of the judgment to be entered.
On remand, the magistrate conducted a hearing during which
she addressed, among other things, whether Mr. Johnson's
child support obligation ended when his youngest child turned
twenty-one (the age of emancipation when the Johnsons
divorced in 1983) or when she turned nineteen (the age of
emancipation under the 1991 amendment to the applicable
statute, see ch. 38, sec. 1, §
14-10-115(15)(1.5)(a), 1991 Colo. Sess. Laws 234). In a
written ruling, the magistrate concluded that Mr.
Johnson's support obligation had continued until his
youngest child turned twenty-one. The magistrate reasoned
that to take advantage of the new, lower age of emancipation,
Mr. Johnson was required to file a motion to modify the child
support order. Any resulting modification would then have
applied to installments that accrued after the motion for
modification. Because Mr. Johnson had filed no such motion,
the magistrate ordered him to pay $23, 260.27-representing
child support owed for the period between September 12, 1992
and July 17, 1997, when the couple's youngest child
turned twenty-one-plus interest pursuant to section
14-14-106, C.R.S. (2016).
Mr. Johnson again sought district court review, that court
adopted the magistrate's order, and Mr. Johnson appealed
to the court of appeals. A division of that court ultimately
reversed the district court's order on the emancipation
question, concluding that Mr. Johnson's child support
obligation had ended when the parties' last child turned
nineteen. See In re Marriage of Johnson, ¶ 5. A
majority of the division agreed with the district court,
however, that under Hauck, laches is not an
available defense in actions to collect past due child
support and the interest thereon. See id. at
¶¶ 17-18. The majority therefore concluded that the
principal amount of the arrearages was $4, 800 ($400 per
month for the twelve months between July 1994, when Mr.
Johnson stopped paying child support, and July 1995, when his
youngest child turned nineteen), and it remanded the case
with instructions that the trial court calculate interest
under section 14-14-106 on the $4, 800 in arrearages.
Id. at ¶ 19. 
Judge Berger concurred specially. Although he agreed with the
majority's reliance on Hauck and its consequent
refusal to allow laches as a defense in the present case, he
pointed out the importance of the doctrine as "a needed
'safety valve' in unusual cases." Id.
at ¶¶ 21-22 (Berger, J., specially concurring).
Judge Berger further noted the recent Hickerson
decision, in which this court, as he put it, "put to
rest arguments that laches can be a defense only to claims
for equitable relief and cannot shorten the period for filing
a claim if the claim had been filed within the statute of
limitations." Id. at ¶ 23 (Berger, J.,
specially concurring). And as pertinent here, Judge Berger
observed that although Hickerson neither cited nor
overruled Hauck, its rationale was "fully
applicable, at least to the interest component of child
support arrearages." Id. at ¶ 24 (Berger,
J., specially concurring).
Mr. Johnson then petitioned this court for a writ of
certiorari, which we granted. When Mrs. Johnson did not enter
an appearance or submit an answer brief, we invited three
interested organizations to submit briefs as amici curiae,
and two did so. As pertinent here, the Colorado Bar
Association's Family Law Section agreed with Mr. Johnson
that under certain circumstances, laches should be available
as a defense to the interest owed on child support
arrearages. The Family Law Section differed with Mr. Johnson,
however, as to ...