THE STATE OF
In The Court of Appeals
Betty Kelley, Appellant,
Henry Kelley, Respondent.
John M. Rucker, Family Court Judge
Opinion No. 4106
Submitted December 1, 2005 – Filed April 24, 2006
John S. Nichols and Robert M. P. Masella, both of
Columbia, for Appellant.
Harvey L. Golden and J. Michael Taylor, both of
Columbia, for Respondent.
PER CURIAM: This is an action to recover unpaid alimony awarded in a 1974 divorce decree. The decree required Henry Kelley (Husband) to pay alimony to Betty Kelley (Wife). The family court granted Husband’s motion to dismiss, finding Wife’s claim for “past due alimony and future support” was barred by laches and equitable estoppel. We affirm.
Husband and Wife divorced on July 30, 1974, after fourteen years of marriage. The divorce decree required Husband to pay child support of fifty dollars per week per child and alimony of twenty-five dollars per week. At the time of the divorce, Husband lived in
Less then a year after the divorce, Wife sent Chuck to live with Husband in
The parties continued under this half-support custody agreement for almost two years, until Chuck went back to live with Wife. By order dated September 23, 1977, the provisions of the original divorce decree were reinstated, and Husband was required to make payments to Wife to resolve a support arrearage of $4,450. This arrangement also did not last long. Less than five months after the 1977 order, Chuck returned to live with Husband in
Six months after Chuck returned to
Less than one month after the ex parte order was signed, Kevin, who was then fifteen, went to
On October 5, 2001, Wife instituted a rule to show cause, seeking to hold Husband in contempt for failure to obey the previous orders requiring him to pay alimony. Husband answered and moved to dismiss based upon laches, expiration of the statute of limitations, and estoppel. After a hearing on the merits, the family court denied Wife’s claim for past due and future alimony on the grounds of laches and estoppel. Wife then moved to alter or amend the judgment which was denied by the trial court. This appeal followed.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In an appeal from the family court, we have jurisdiction to find the facts in accordance with our view of the preponderance of the evidence.
Wife contends the family court erred by denying her claim for alimony based on laches. We disagree.
“Laches is neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, under circumstances affording opportunity for diligence, to do what in law should have been done.” Hallums v. Hallums, 296 S.C. 195, 198, 371 S.E.2d 525, 527 (1988). The party seeking to establish laches must show (1) delay, (2) that was unreasonable under the circumstances, and (3) prejudice. Brown v.
Whether laches applies in a particular situation is a highly fact-specific inquiry; therefore, the merits of each case must be closely examined. Muir v. C.R. Bard, Inc., 336 S.C. 266, 297, 519 S.E.2d 583, 599 (Ct. App. 1999). Thus, “the determination of whether laches has been established is largely within the discretion of the trial court.” Emery v. Smith, 361 S.C. 207, 215, 603 S.E.2d 598, 602 (Ct. App. 2004). Additionally, in order for the defense of laches to be sustained, “the circumstances must have been such as to import that the complainant had abandoned or surrendered the claim or right which he now asserts.” Byers v.
In this action, the family court found Wife’s delay was unreasonable. It is undisputed that there has been at least a twenty-four year delay from the original divorce order to the present action. Alimony was awarded to Wife in the 1974 divorce decree, reiterated in the 1977 order, and the present action was not commenced until 2001. Although Wife received an order in 1978 holding Husband in contempt, she admittedly never served Husband or his counsel. Despite seeing Husband at numerous gatherings over the years, including the weddings of both sons, Wife failed to have Husband served with the order. She also failed to write or call Husband to request alimony.
Wife further claims she did not know how to locate Husband and therefore her delay should be excused. However, the record shows Wife has seen her children at least once a year since 1978, and Husband has employed both sons intermittently over the years. Wife testified to having a good relationship with her sons, and she offered no explanation as to why she could not have asked her sons where Husband lived. Additionally, Husband presented evidence he owned property in
We further find Husband was prejudiced by Wife’s delay in seeking alimony. Husband is sixty-five years old and approaching retirement. He testified his finances have been erratic over the past twenty-four years, and if he had known he had a lingering support obligation, he would have asked the court to terminate or reduce his payments. He is currently on his fourth marriage, and is a diabetic with extremely poor health. Wife, however, has maintained the same employment since the divorce and has been able to meet her own needs for the past twenty-four years. Therefore, we agree with the family court’s finding that Husband would be materially prejudiced by Wife resurrecting an alimony obligation over twenty years old.
Wife also relies on the case of Miles v. Miles, 355 S.C. 511, 586 S.E.2d 136 (Ct. App. 2003), for the proposition that Husband cannot orally modify a court order. Although it is “axiomatic that parties cannot modify a court order,” Wife’s reliance on Miles is misplaced.
Wife lastly argues the family court erred in finding her claims barred by equitable estoppel, arguing that Husband did not meet his burden in establishing equitable estoppel. We disagree.
Here, Wife’s conduct conveyed the impression that Husband was no longer obligated to pay alimony based on Husband’s understanding that Wife agreed to waive alimony in exchange for him having custody of the children and based on Wife’s failure to demand alimony from Husband in over twenty years. Further, Wife intended Husband to rely on the agreement that he not pay her alimony, so that he, in turn, would not pursue child support against her. Husband’s decision not to seek child support also shows he was justified in relying on the parties’ decision to mutually waive support obligations. Lastly, Husband changed his position in reliance on the agreement because if he had known he had a lingering support obligation, he would have sought to have his obligation reduced or eliminated. Therefore, we find the family court correctly concluded equitable estoppel would also bar Wife’s claim for alimony.
Accordingly, the family court’s finding that Wife’s claim for past due alimony and future alimony should be barred on the grounds of laches and equitable estoppel is hereby
HEARN, C.J., and HUFF and BEATTY, JJ., concur.
 We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.
 Because alimony is a continuing obligation, the doctrine of laches would not apply to Husband’s future alimony payments. See Stephens v. Hamrick, 358 S.E.2d 547 (N.C. Ct. App. 1987) (refusing to apply doctrine of laches to the enforcement of a court order for alimony because “the obligation to furnish support is continuous [and therefore] a lapse of time will not be a bar to the commencement”). However, the family court found Wife’s claim for “past due alimony and future support” was barred by laches and equitable estoppel. We affirm that order, but note that Wife’s claim for future support is barred solely by the doctrine of equitable estoppel, an issue we discuss below.
 Because our resolution of these issues is dispositive, we need not address Appellant’s remaining issues. See Whiteside v. Cherokee County School Dist. No. One, 311 S.C. 335, 428 S.E.2d 886 (1993) (holding an appellate court need not address remaining issues when the resolution of a prior issue is dispositive).