SHELLY R. HIGGINS
TODD A. WOOD
Argued: October 11, 2017
A. R. Willey, Esq. (orally), Willey Law Offices, Bangor, for
appellant Todd A. Wood
Doane, Esq., Exeter, for appellee Shelly R. Higgins
T. Mills, Attorney General, Thomas A. Knowlton, Asst. Atty.
Gen. (orally), and Debby Willis, Asst. Atty. Gen., Office of
the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee Department of
Health and Human Services
SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and
Majority: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, HJELM,
and HUMPHREY, JJ.
In this appeal, and a separate opinion issued today, see
Dep't of Health & Human Servs. v. Fagone, 2018
ME 89, - A.3d -, we clarify the circumstances in which a
court order that anticipates a change in child support upon
the occurrence of future events will be self-effectuating. In
the matter before us, we conclude that the court's order
requiring Todd A. Wood to pay a specific amount of child
support to Shelly R. Higgins did not contain a
self-effectuating provision that immediately reduced
Wood's child support payments upon his oldest child
reaching age eighteen. We also conclude that neither
administrative collateral estoppel nor administrative
equitable estoppel was properly raised and therefore those
doctrines cannot provide a remedy to Wood. Accordingly, we
affirm the judgment on Wood's post-divorce motions in
which the District Court (Bangor, Lucy, /.) ordered
changes in Wood's child support effective only after
Wood's service of the post-divorce motion to modify.
The following facts are drawn from the procedural record and
from the family law magistrate's [Chandler, M.)
findings of fact, reached upon a stipulated documentary
record and adopted by the District Court [Lucy, J.). See
Dunwoody v. Dunwoody, 2017 ME 21, ¶ 7, 155 A.3d
422. Higgins and Wood were married in May 1997 and have three
children who were born in 1991, 1998, and 2001.
Higgins filed a complaint for divorce on March 20, 2007, and
a family law magistrate [Langner, M.) entered a
divorce judgment on June 14, 2007, that provided for Higgins
to have primary residence and required Wood to pay child
support of $297.15 per week for the three children, who were
then ages fifteen, nine, and five. The child support
worksheet attached to the judgment provided as follows with
respect to the overall weekly support obligation of the
Basic weekly support for all children up to 18 years (or up
to 19 years if still in high school)
a Total number of children 3_
b Number of children ages 0-11 2 multiplied by
amount from table 102X2 = 204
c Number of children ages 12-17 1 multiplied by
amount from table 126
court added in the $35 cost of health insurance for the three
children without apportioning it per child. The order made
Wood responsible for ninety-one percent of the weekly support
and credited him for paying the cost of health insurance,
resulting in the $297 weekly support amount that was required
by the judgment for support of the three children. The child
support order stated:
The child support obligation shall continue for each child
until that child reaches the age of 18; provided, however,
that if the child has not graduated, withdrawn, or been
expelled from secondary school as defined in Title 20-A, the
child support shall continue until the child graduates or
reaches the age of 19, whichever occurs first[.]
In addition, the order stated, "Any party to this action
may ask the court to review the amount of child support and
if appropriate, to modify it in accordance with the
state's child support guidelines. To start this process,
a party must file with the court a Motion to Modify."
To assure that Wood met his child support obligations,
Higgins pursued support enforcement through the Department of
Health and Human Services Division of Support Enforcement and
Recovery, which withheld Wood's wages to provide Higgins
with the ordered child support beginning in the middle of
2008. In 2009, the oldest child turned eighteen, having
already graduated from high school. At about that time, Wood
asked the Department to reduce his payments, though he did
not move to modify the judgment in the District
Court. The Department made no adjustment at that
Wood continued to pay child support in the amount ordered and
took no further action until February 2015 when his telephone
calls to the Department prompted the Regional Manager of the
Department's Division of Support Enforcement and Recovery
to send him a notice that the Department was adjusting the
child support obligation down to $182 per week. The $182
amount was apparently intended to reflect a flat reduction of
the basic weekly support by the $126 amount originally
allocated to the oldest child in the 2007 child support
worksheet, with the health insurance provisions remaining the
same despite the termination of support for one child, and
the support amounts for the other two children remaining
unchanged despite the increases that should have occurred
when each of the younger children reached age twelve. At the
time of the February 2015 letter, the two younger children
were ages seventeen and thirteen.
Several months later, in July 2015, the Director of the
Division informed Wood that the February decision was in
error and that Wood needed to file, in court, a motion to
modify the child support order to seek any reduction in the
On July 24, 2015, Wood filed two motions in the District
Court-a motion to modify and a motion for determination of
overpayment. He argued that he had overpaid by more than $35,
000 over the course of six years because, after the oldest
child turned eighteen, his child support obligation should
have been reduced by $114 per week. Although the use of the
summary judgment process in family law matters is not
authorized, see M.R. Civ. P. 56(a),  Wood also moved
for summary judgment on his post-judgment motions, submitting
a statement of material facts and supporting evidence. In the
motion for summary judgment, he raised issues of
administrative collateral estoppel and equitable estoppel.
The parties filed opposing and reply memoranda and statements
of material facts.
On March 21, 2016, the family law magistrate
[Chandler, M.) held a hearing. The parties
informed the magistrate that they had agreed to a series of
three child support orders to apply from the filing of
Wood's motion, in July 2015, forward. The first of these
orders imposed an obligation of $280.50 per week toward the
support of the two youngest children through January 2016
when the middle child turned eighteen. The order explicitly
provided that the support would decrease to $207.56 upon the
youngest child becoming the only child for whom support was
owed, and the final order required Wood to pay $187 per week
beginning in August 2016 based on the Department's
revised child support table. See 17 C.M.R. 10 144
351-15 to -23 (2016).
The magistrate then accepted a collection of stipulated
exhibits, and the parties offered legal arguments regarding
the amount of child support owed from the oldest child's
eighteenth birthday in 2009 through the July 31, 2015,
effective date of the first agreed-upon order. Thus, the
court held the trial on a stipulated record, and the parties
presented argument on the applicable law. See Rose v.
Parsons, 2015 ME 73, ¶ 8, 118 A.3d 220.
The magistrate entered the modified child support orders to
which the parties had agreed. The magistrate then concluded
that Wood could not recover any overpayment for child support
paid prior to his service of the motion to modify because the
parties' 2007 judgment did not provide dollar amounts by
which the child support order would self-adjust upon each
child's emancipation or attainment of the age of twelve.
The court ordered the Department to determine any amount of
overpayment or underpayment that may have arisen while the
motion to modify was under consideration by the court.
The Department filed an unopposed motion to amend the
findings of fact to correct minor factual errors, which the
magistrate granted. Wood objected to the magistrate's
order on the grounds that the magistrate applied the
incorrect law and that only a judge-not a magistrate-had the
authority to rule on the motion for summary judgment.
See M.R. Civ. P. 118(a).
The court [LucyJ.) reviewed the magistrate's
decision and entered a judgment in which it adopted the
magistrate's order on the modification of child support,
agreed with the magistrate that the Department did not have
the authority to adjust the court-ordered amount of child
support, and concluded that summary judgment must be denied,
in part because a party may not move for summary judgment on
a post-judgment motion in a family matter. See id.
With respect to the alleged overpayment, the court explained
that, because the divorce judgment did not include explicit
prospective calculations of child support based on the
children reaching age twelve or eighteen, a motion to modify
the judgment was necessary for the court to find the proper
amount of child support to be paid.
Wood appealed from the judgment. See 14 M.R.S.
§ 1901(1) (2017); 19-A M.R.S. § 104 (2017); M.R.
App. P. 2 (Tower 2016). The Department filed a brief that
included a "supplement" consisting of the child
support worksheet and order from Lund v. Lund, a
District Court case that resulted in an opinion from us. 2007
ME 98, 927 A.2d 1185. Wood objected and moved to strike the
supplement because it was not in the record available to the
trial court. We ordered that the issue would be
considered along with the merits of the appeal, and we now
take judicial notice of the documents submitted by the
Department and address the merits of Wood's appeal.
See M.R. Evid. 201(b)(2), (d); cf. In re
Jonas, 2017 ME 115, ¶ 38 n.10, 164 A.3d 120
(explaining that a court may take judicial notice of the
action taken by a court in a final judgment).
Wood argues that the child support order included in the 2007
divorce judgment provided for a self-effectuating reduction
in the amount of child support when the parties' oldest
child turned eighteen in 2009 and that he is therefore
entitled to recoup an overpayment of child support. Here, we
use the term "self-effectuating" to describe a
provision in a judgment that explicitly articulates a change
in a support obligation on an identified date or upon the
occurrence of a specific event, such that the new, explicitly
identified amount takes immediate effect and is enforceable.
In other words, we have substituted the term
"self-effectuating" for the longer description used
previously for a "self-executing provision that
automatically amends a court order" upon the occurrence
of a specific event or the arrival of a specific date.
Bartlett v. Anderson, 2005 ME 10, ¶ 12, 866
To review whether the judgment at issue here was
self-effectuating such that Wood was entitled to reduce his
payments without further order of the court, we (A) summarize
the alternative administrative and court processes for
establishing and modifying child support, (B) examine the law
governing self-effectuating adjustments in court-issued child
support orders, (C) review whether the District Court
properly applied the law, and (D) address the application of
principles of collateral and equitable estoppel.
Methods of Establishing and Modifying Child Support Orders in
In Maine, there are different methods for parents to obtain
enforceable orders of child support. Most commonly, a parent
will seek a child support order through (1) the Department in
an administrative proceeding, see 19-A M.R.S. §
2304 (2017); 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-36 to -41, ch. 8 (2016), or
(2) the District Court in an action for divorce or for the
determination of parental rights and responsibilities,
see 19-A M.R.S. §§ 901, 1652,
1653(2)(D)(3), 1653(8) (2017). We summarize the methods for
establishing and enforcing each of these types of orders.
Department-Issued Child Support Orders
The Department-acting "on its own behalf or on behalf of
another state or another state's instrumentality, an
individual or governmental applicant for services under
section 2103 [support enforcement] or a person entitled by
federal law to support enforcement services as a former
recipient of public assistance"-may "establish the
responsible parent's current parental support
obligation" applying the statutory child support
guidelines and the statute governing deviation from the
guidelines. 19-A M.R.S. § 2304; see 19-A M.R.S.
§§ 2001-2012 (2017) (child support
guidelines);17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-37 to-39, ch. 8,
A party may seek administrative review of a Department
decision establishing the child support obligation within
thirty days after receiving notice of the decision. 19-A
M.R.S. § 2451 (2017); 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-49, ch. 12,
§ 2(B)(2)(a), (3)(i) (2017). If a party seeks to
challenge the final decision entered upon administrative
review, that party may appeal to the Superior Court for
judicial review. 19-A M.R.S. § 2453 (2017); M.R. Civ. P.
80C. A party has a right of appeal to the Law Court from the
Superior Court decision on the Rule 80C appeal. See
M.R. Civ. P. 80C(m).
If there is a substantial change in circumstances after the
Department's order becomes final, a responsible parent
may seek amendment of the order by the Department through an
administrative hearing. See 19-A M.R.S. §
2304(8); 17 C.M.R. 10 144 351-40, -50, ch. 8, § 15, ch.
12, § 2(C). All rights to administrative review and
appeal to the courts are again available upon the
Department's decision. See 19-A M.R.S.
§§ 2451, 2453; M.R. Civ. P. 80C; 17 C.M.R. 10 144
351-49, ch. 12, § 2(B)(2)(a), (3)(i).
If a court enters a child support order after the Department
establishes a child support order, the court order will
supersede the Department's administrative decision
ordering the payment of child ...