What Does It Mean to Have “Clean Hands” in Court?

Alan R. Burton Attorney at Law

Do you have a divorce case, a paternity case, or a supplemental petition for modification of alimony or child support pending before the court?   If you have answered yes to this question, you need to be sure that you have “clean hands” when you proceed to court with your case.

What in the world does this mean “clean hands”?   “Clean hands” simply means that you must act in good faith when you appear in court.  You cannot expect to be rewarded for bad behavior when you appear in court.  You must act in good faith, “have your house in order”, and be candid and honest with the Court.  This is what “clean hands” means.

The clean hands doctrine frequently arises in supplemental petitions for modification of alimony or child support.  A party may be seeking to reduce the previously ordered obligation for support, based upon a change in their financial circumstances.  Often times these individuals will have a large, accrued balance, of either child support or alimony arrears.  If you fall into this category and proceed to court seeking relief,  you better have a good explanation as to why you have not been paying the previously ordered amounts for either alimony or child support.

Unless you can explain that you simply did not have the ability to pay the previously ordered support obligations, your supplemental petition for downward modification will in all probability be denied.

When you are seeking to reduce your support obligations, you must also allege in your petition that your inability to pay the amounts which were previously ordered was not intentional, but simply beyond your financial means.  If you fail to allege this, your petition seeking relief will most likely not be granted.

The representation that you make to the court in your pleadings, regarding your inability to pay, is an example of you having “clean hands”, rather than you simply disobeying a court order.

Another way of stating this doctrine, is that if you are seeking equity or fairness from the court, you yourself must be doing equity and act in a fair and reasonable manner.

There are hundreds and hundreds of cases that talk about the equitable doctrine of “unclean hands”, which can be utilized as a defense when the other party seeks a reduction in his or her support obligations.

One example of this principle is found in the case of Jenkins v. Jenkins.  Mr. Jenkins owed over $24,000 in child support payments.  He filed a supplemental petition to reduce his child support payments claiming that he did not have the financial ability to continue to pay the court ordered obligation.  He was successful with his case at trial, however, on appeal, he was not as fortunate.  The appellate court reversed his good fortune, simply because he did not allege nor prove that the failure to pay the previous amounts of child support were not willful and intentional.

If you have an arrears, it does not automatically mean that you can’t get a future, prospective reduction from your support obligation.  It simply means that you need to be prepared to show that you were financially incapable of complying with the previous child support order.  For a good discussion of these various concepts, you can read the case of Blender v. Blender.

A continuing default in court ordered obligations simply does not bode well when you come to court asking for financial relief.  This would be especially true if you are gainfully employed throughout the period of time that you are either not making any support payments, or not making the full amount of court ordered support obligations.  In Feder v. Feder, the former husband ran into the same difficulties that Mr. Jenkins ran into.  Mr. Feder was unable to prove that he lacked the financial ability to comply with previous court orders, and therefore his supplemental petition for downward modification of support, originally granted at the trial court level, was ultimately reversed on appeal.

Filing a supplemental petition for downward modification of support must contain the proper language, demonstrating good faith, if you expect to receive favorable treatment by the court.  Contact Alan R. Burton, an experienced attorney who practices primarily in Palm Beach County and Broward County. Florida, who can appropriately and professionally represent you, either in the pursuit of your petition for modification, or in defending you in a modification proceeding.  Mr. Burton can be reached at 954-295-9222.  He stands by ready to take your call.

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