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Wife sought to collect installments of child support that were due between the years 1967 and 1982. The circuit court determined the total amount of support arrearages due Wife was $73,629. The court of appeals affirmed. At issue on appeal was whether the parties' 1966 child support order created a judgment or judgments that triggered the running of the twenty-year statute of limitations set forth in Va. Code Ann. 8.01-251(A), therefore barring Wife's enforcement of the child support order. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) each installment payment ordered by the court in its 1966 decree became a judgment on the date such payment was due if it was not paid; (2) all support obligations ordered by the divorce decree became due and owing in 1982, when the youngest child for whom Husband owed support reached the age of eighteen, and thus created judgments on or before that date; and (3) this action to collect past due child support obligations, based on the 1966 decree, was filed more than twenty years after any payments ordered by the decree became judgments by operation of law, and was barred pursuant to section 8.01-251(A). Final judgment entered for Husband.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
Present: Kinser, C.J., Lemons, Goodwyn, and Millette, JJ., and
Carrico, Russell, and Koontz, S.JJ.
EDWARD W. ADCOCK
JUSTICE S. BERNARD GOODWYN
November 4, 2011
Record No. 101316
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA,
DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES,
DIVISION OF CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT,
EX REL. MILDRED HOUCHENS, ET AL.
FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA
In this appeal, we consider whether the 20-year limitation
on the enforcement of a judgment, stated in Code § 8.01-251(A),
bars an attempt to collect child support arrearages created at
least 24 years earlier when a spouse failed to make ongoing
child support payments as ordered in a final divorce decree.
The parties were divorced by a final decree entered in the
Corporation Court of the City of Alexandria on October 20,
The final decree ordered Edward W. Adcock (Adcock) to
pay Mildred A. Adcock (now Houchens) child support in the
amount of $30.00 per week, continuing until the parties’ three
minor children reached majority, became emancipated or the
court otherwise decreed.
It is undisputed that Adcock’s child
support obligation terminated on June 24, 1982, when the
Houchens 1 seeks
youngest of the minor children was emancipated.
to collect installments of child support that were due between
the years 1967 and 1982.
On June 14, 2006, Houchens applied for DCSE to enforce the
child support ordered from Adcock in the parties’ final decree.
Acting upon Houchens’ request, on July 7, 2008, DCSE moved the
Circuit Court of the City of Alexandria to re-open the parties’
divorce, establish the child support arrearage and interest,
and set a payment plan.
Adcock responded, pleading as an affirmative defense that
the statute of limitations expressed in Code § 8.01-251 barred
DCSE’s attempt to collect the support arrearage due Houchens.
The circuit court ruled that the statute of limitations did not
bar the collection of child support arrears and interest.
After hearing testimony, the court determined that the total
amount of support arrearages, including principal and interest,
due Houchens was $73,629.10.3
Adcock appealed to the Court of Appeals, and a divided
panel affirmed the circuit court’s determination.
Dept. of Soc. Servs., 56 Va. App. 334, 693 S.E.2d 757 (2010).
The Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Social
Services, Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE) is a
party to this appeal in its representative capacity for Mildred
Adcock contends that the 20-year statute of limitations
set forth in Code § 8.01-251(A) bars Houchens’ enforcement of
the 1966 child support order, because the unpaid child support
installments owed by Adcock became judgments as a matter of law
more than 20 years before the instant proceeding to collect
Houchens argues that the 20-year limitation in
Code § 8.01-251(A) only applies to liquidated money judgments,
and not, as here, to an unliquidated ongoing support
Houchens asserts that judgments created by the
failure to pay support obligations when due and owing, pursuant
to an ongoing decree, are judgments but that such judgments are
not subject to the statute of limitations in Code § 8.01-251(A)
because they are different from “ordinary” money judgments.
In Bennett v. Commonwealth ex. rel. Waters, 15 Va. App.
135, 422 S.E.2d 458 (1992), the Court of Appeals held that the
foreign judgment statute of limitations under former Code
§ 8.01-252 (now governed by § 8.01-251(A)) did not apply to the
enforcement of a New Jersey spousal support order under the
Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (former Code
§ 20-88.12 et seq.).
Id. at 147, 422 S.E.2d at 465.
Houchens. For clarity, we will refer to Houchens and DCSE
collectively as “Houchens.”
rationale was that the New Jersey order was an ongoing
unliquidated support obligation, and that no statute of
limitations applied to such judgments.
In Bennett, the Court of Appeals stated that a support
order or decree requiring the payment of money was a judgment
pursuant to Code § 8.01-426, but, regarding whether such a
judgment was subject to a statute of limitations, the court
noted a distinction between support orders that adjudicate an
ongoing unliquidated support obligation, and those that
adjudicate a sum certain or liquidated amount due and owing for
Id. at 141-42, 422 S.E.2d at 462.
It held that
statutes of limitations were applicable only to judgments that
adjudicated a sum certain or a liquidated amount.
422 S.E.2d at 465.
Id. at 147,
The Court of Appeals reasoned that when an
obligor fails to perform under the terms of an ongoing support
order, a court has the inherent authority to enforce its order
by rendering a judgment in favor of the obligee for the
liquidated amount of the accumulated arrearages.
422 S.E.2d at 463.
Id. at 144,
It therefore concluded that when a support
order “merely” establishes an ongoing unliquidated obligation,
the general law of the Commonwealth provides no time limitation
within which the obligee spouse may obtain a money judgment for
the arrearage accumulated under such an order.
422 S.E.2d at 464.
Id. at 144-45,
On the other hand, once a judgment for a
sum certain is obtained, Code § 8.01-251 provides a 20-year
period, unless extended, within which the obligee may enforce
Id. at 144, 422 S.E.2d at 463.
Relying primarily on Bennett, the Court of Appeals ruled,
in this matter, that the statute of limitations in Code § 8.01251(A) only applies to liquidated money judgments.
that because the child support order contained in the divorce
decree was ongoing, rather than a liquidated money judgment,
the statute of limitations in Code § 8.01-251(A) did not bar
Houchens’ attempt to collect the support arrearages.
56 Va. App. at 334, 693 S.E.2d at 762.
The relevant issue – whether the 1966 decree created a
judgment or judgments that triggered the running of the 20-year
limitation period expressed in Code § 8.01-251(A) – is a pure
question of law regarding statutory interpretation and
To determine whether the 20-year statute of
limitations stated in Code § 8.01-251(A) bars Houchens’ attempt
to collect past due child support, we must examine the relevant
decree and statutes.
Court is de novo.
The standard of review applied by this
See, e.g., Level 3 Commc’ns, LLC v. State
Corp. Comm’n, 282 Va. 41, 46, 710 S.E.2d 474, 477 (2011); Ford
Motor Co. v. Gordon, 281 Va. 543, 549, 708 S.E.2d 846, 850
(2011) (citing Conyers v. Martial Arts World of Richmond, Inc.,
273 Va. 96, 104, 639 S.E.2d 174, 178 (2007)).
Code § 8.01-251(A) states:
No execution shall be issued and no action brought on
a judgment, including a judgment in favor of the
Commonwealth and a judgment rendered in another state
or country, after 20 years from the date of such
judgment or domestication of such judgment . . . .
Virginia law provides that decrees ordering payment of
money have the effect of judgments.
Code § 8.01-426 states in
relevant part, “[A] decree or order requiring the payment of
money, shall have the effect of a judgment for such . . .
money. . . .” 2
The 1966 decree entered by the Corporation Court
of the City of Alexandria required Adcock to pay his wife
$30.00 per week until each of his three children reached the
age of majority.
The decree required the support payments to
be made in installments due on specific dates; it was an
ongoing support order.
Ongoing unliquidated support orders require installment
payments on dates certain in the future.
The statute of
limitations in Code § 8.01-251(A) does not apply to future
payments required by an ongoing support order, because such
prospective payments are not judgments (see Code §§ 8.01-426, 427); an ongoing support order may be modified going forward.
Substantially identical language has been in effect in
Virginia since the Code of 1950. See former Code § 8-343
(1950). See also former Code § 6459 (1919). Thus, this
provision was applicable in 1966, as well as under the 1977
revision of the Code that codified the provision in Code
See Code §§ 20-108, -109; Hammers v. Hammers, 216 Va. 30, 31,
216 S.E.2d 20, 21 (1975); Eaton v. Davis, 176 Va. 330, 341, 10
S.E.2d 893, 898 (1940).
However, the prospective payments do
become judgments on the date they are required to be paid and
See Code § 8.01-426.
Once the date on which a
payment is ordered to be made has passed, the obligation may
not be modified.
Support payments, required by an order or
decree, “become vested as they accrue and the court is without
authority to make any change as to past due installments.”
Cofer v. Cofer, 205 Va. 834, 838, 140 S.E.2d 663, 666 (1965).
The final decree entered by the corporation court required
Adcock to make ongoing installment support payments.
decree provided the date on which each such installment was
The decree was never modified; the dates on which the
court-ordered payment installments were to have been made have
Adcock, undisputedly, failed to make money payments
ordered by the court as they became due and owing pursuant to
the court’s decree.
When the language of a statute is plain
and unambiguous, courts are bound by the plain meaning of that
Cummings v. Fulghum, 261 Va. 73, 77, 540 S.E.2d 494,
Because the money was not paid on the dates due as
required by the court’s decree, the court’s decree requiring
that such payments be made “had the effect of a judgment for
such amount” under the plain language of Code § 8.01-426.
Indicating that the General Assembly intends that due and
unpaid support installments have the effect of judgments, since
1988 it has statutorily required every circuit court judge
entering a divorce decree or other order providing for periodic
support payments to include, in the decree itself, notice that
a support obligation, as it becomes due and unpaid, creates a
judgment by operation of law.
Code § 20-60.3(14).
1988 Acts ch. 906; see current
Although that notice requirement was
enacted after the dates relevant to the decree in this case, it
is only by operation of Code § 8.01-426 and its substantially
identical predecessor under the Code of 1950, which was in
effect throughout the relevant time period, that a circuit
court-ordered support obligation, as it becomes due and unpaid,
has the effect of a judgment. 3
We hold that, by operation of Code § 8.01-426, each
installment payment ordered by the court in its decree became a
judgment on the date such payment was due if it was not paid.
Thus, each payment ordered by the court that Adcock failed to
pay on the date it was due became a judgment for the amount of
that installment payment.
Code § 16.1-278.15(C) states that support obligations
ordered by Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts
create a judgment by operation of law as they become due and
Code § 8.01-251(A) does not make a distinction between
judgments created by operation of law pursuant to Code § 8.01426 and those for liquidated money damages.
Also, the statute
does not contain an exception for judgments arising from unpaid
ongoing support obligations.
When the General Assembly uses
“words of a plain and definite import, courts cannot assign to
them a construction that would be tantamount to holding that
the General Assembly intended something other than that which
it actually expressed.”
Mozley v. Prestwould Bd. of Dirs., 264
Va. 549, 554, 570 S.E.2d 817, 820 (2002).
Thus, even if there
were a practical legal distinction between a “judgment” and a
“liquidated money judgment,” such distinction is irrelevant to
the application of § 8.01-251(A) because that statute makes no
such distinction between the different types of judgments.
By its plain language, the time limitation stated in Code
§ 8.01-251(A) applies to all judgments.
the statute to indicate otherwise.
There is nothing in
Thus, the judgments created
as the result of a payor failing to make payments on the date
ordered by an ongoing support order are limited in their
enforcement to 20 years from the date each such missed payment
becomes a judgment by operation of law, unless a statutorily
authorized extension is obtained. 4
Other than that which is statutorily prohibited by Code
§ 8.01-251, this opinion in no way concerns or affects the
The support payments Adcock was ordered to pay pursuant to
the divorce decree as they became due and were unpaid became
In this case, the youngest child for whom Adcock
owed support reached the age of 18 on June 24, 1982.
undisputed that all support obligations ordered by the divorce
decree became due and owing and thus created judgments on or
before that date.
Thus, the action to collect past due child
support obligations, based upon the 1966 decree, was filed more
than 20 years after any payments ordered by the decree became
judgments by operation of law, and is barred pursuant to Code
The circuit court should have so held.
Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment of the Court of
Appeals, and enter final judgment for Adcock.
Reversed and final judgment.
ability of a court to use its inherent authority to enforce its