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Appellate court tackles child support issues

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In three opinions released Wednesday, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on child support issues – the application of Social Security benefits to an arrearage and whether two fathers who were incarcerated for not paying child support could have their support obligations modified.

In Jonathon D. Douglas v. State of Indiana and Indiana Family & Social Services Admin., as Assignee of the Support Rights of Mechelle (Allen) McCrory, No. 40A01-1009-DR-466, and companion ruling Julie Nunley, n/k/a Waldrath v. Jeremy A. Nunley, No. 68A04-1105-DR-269, the judges rejected the state’s arguments that incarceration for nonsupport is a conscious decision to reduce income or that the courts should not follow Lambert v. Lambert, 861 N.E.2d 1176 (Ind. 2007), and Clark v. Clark, 902 N.E.2d 813, 817 (Ind. 2009), in reducing child support obligations of parents who are incarcerated for nonpayment.

The Indiana Supreme Court’s reasoning that reduction of child support obligations during incarceration serves the best interest of the child appears to apply regardless of the crime that led to the imprisonment, wrote Judge Paul Mathias in Douglas.

“While we share the frustration of the trial court and the frustration of greater, responsible, civil society with parents like Douglas, we are constrained to agree with Douglas’s reading of the applicable law, and we specifically decline to carve out an exception to our supreme court’s holdings in Lambert and Clark,” he wrote.

The appellate court reversed the Jennings Circuit Court’s denial of Jonathon Douglas’ petition to modify his child support obligation, and affirmed the Randolph Circuit Court’s order modifying Jeremy Nunley’s child support obligation. Both men were in prison for felony nonsupport of a dependent.

In Todd A. Anderson v. Shauna Anderson, No. 47A01-1104-DR-159, the appellate court had to interpret Indiana Child Support Guideline 3, which was silent on the issue of whether periodic Social Security Disability payments may be applied against a support arrearage that accumulated before the filing of a petition to modify support. The guideline was modified following Brown v. Brown, 849 N.E.2d 610 (Ind. 2006), and allowed for lump-sum SSD payments to be applied against a support arrearage that predated the filing of a petition to modify.

The judges speculated that the commentary to Guideline 3(G)(5) foreshadows that periodic SSD payments would be treated the same as lump-sum payments, wrote Judge Ezra Friedlander.

“The Commentary provides that SSD payments for the benefit of a dependent child are regarded as income of the disabled parent and shall be credited as payment toward the disabled parent’s support obligation,” he wrote. “… we can see no meaningful distinction between SSD periodic payments and SSD lump-sum payments paid for the benefit of a dependent child.”

The COA reversed the denial of Todd Anderson’s request to apply all of the periodic SSD payments received to date by Shauna Anderson on their child’s behalf against his existing support arrearage. The judges remanded with instructions to calculate the amount of those payments and adjust the arrearage accordingly.

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