The question posed in the title of this post is exactly the question stated by the Indiana Court of Appeals in Wilson v. Steward, 937 N.E.2d 826 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010).
Oldie, but a goodie. On July 25, 1989, the Henry Circuit Court held that Father was in contempt for non-payment of child support and ordered that Father pay a lump sum for the arrearage, plus Mother’s attorney fees. Father died in 2009, and an estate was opened in Rush Superior Court. On September 10, 2009, Mother filed a claim against the estate based on the unpaid order from 1989. The estate filed a motion to dismiss and asserted that the claim was barred by statutes of limitations. The trial court denied the motion and awarded Mother the money to which she was entitled over twenty years earlier.
Not child support. The Court of Appeals rejected the idea that the 1989 order was an enforcement of child support obligations, which triggers its own statute of limitations (Ind. Code § 34-11-2-10). If you are a domestic relations lawyer who has stumbled on to my blog, please read the opinion for more on that subject.
Money judgment. The Court held that the Indiana code sections dealing with the enforcement of money judgments applied. “Mother’s claim against the estate is an attempt to enforce the 1989 judgment . . ..” The issue was whether I.C. § 34-11-2-12 barred Mother’s claim. I touched upon this matter in my 2008 post “Time Limitations Upon The Enforcement Of Non-Indiana Judgments In Indiana.” The statute reads: “Every judgment and decree of any court of record of the United States, of Indiana, or of any other state shall be considered satisfied after the expiration of twenty (20) years.”
Unique statute. The Wilson opinion noted that I.C. § 34-11-2-12 contains “unique phraseology” that “sets it apart from all other statutes of limitation listed in Indiana Code Chapter 34-11-2.” In reality, the twenty-year statute is not a statute of limitations but “a rule of evidence that creates a rebuttable presumption.” This means:
A judgment that is less than twenty years old constitutes prima facie proof of a valid and subsisting claim, whereas a judgment that is over twenty years old stands discredited, with the lapse of time constituting prima facie proof of payment. Thus, the party seeking to avail itself of the presumption of satisfaction of a judgment after twenty years have passed must plead payment.
(Prima facie is defined as “a fact presumed to be true unless disproved by some evidence to the contrary.”)
Applying the statute. In Wilson, Mother filed her claim to enforce the 1989 money judgment six weeks after the twenty-year period expired. At the trial court’s hearing in 2010, Mother provided testimony that the 1989 judgment had not been paid. Moreover, the record was devoid of any evidence from the estate asserting payment. The Court of Appeals concluded that “the evidence was sufficient to overcome the presumption of satisfaction of the judgment.” Accordingly, I.C. § 34-11-2-12 did not bar Mother’s claim against the estate.
No absolute bar. Wilson illustrates that Section 12 does not set an outer limit of twenty years on the validity and enforceability of a money judgment. In other words, Section 12 does not constitute an absolute bar to recovery. Rather, it is a rule of evidence creating a rebuttable presumption of satisfaction (payment) by the lapse of time (twenty years). If there is proof of non-payment, particularly in the absence of any proof of payment, then judgments can be enforced outside of the twenty-year period. How long is too long to wait before enforcing a money judgment in Indiana? According to Wilson, it may never be too late, even if the judgment debtor is dead!