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Court affirms dismissal of default judgment

January 1, 2008
The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court finding that a mother had a valid excuse for not showing up to a child-support modification hearing because neither she nor her attorney received proper notice of the hearing.

In Jason D. Bunch v. Katherine R. Himm, 64A04-0705-CV-262, Bunch and Himm divorced, leaving Bunch with physical custody of their two children. Himm moved from northern Indiana to South Carolina and joined the United States Marine Corps Reserves. Their divorce decree was finalized shortly after she joined, and the court ruled she would pay $220 a week to Bunch in support while on active duty because her income would be larger and $138 while on reserve duty.

While Himm was away on active duty, and within one year of the decree, Bunch filed an unverified petition to modify the divorce decree to increase child support because Himm's income had increased. The petition was mailed to Himm at a South Carolina address she was having her mail sent to and a copy was also mailed to her attorney. The person getting Himm's mail told her she received a notice about a court date and to contact her attorney. Himm called her attorney and told him that she would not be able to appear and that he would have to go for her. The attorney replied that he did not receive a notice and there was no court date.

When the hearing date arrived, neither Himm nor her attorney showed. As a result, Bunch received a default judgment increasing the amount of child support Himm would pay. Himm did not learn of the default judgment until Bunch told her. At that point, she filed a petitioner's Trial Rule 60 motion to set aside default orders and a motion to withdraw and stay.

The trial court granted her petition because it found Himm's not showing up to the hearing as "excusable neglect" under T.R. 60. Bunch appealed the trial court's ruling.

Judge Patricia Riley wrote the default judgment against Himm should have been set aside because Bunch filed an unverified petition for modification. Also, the Indiana Supreme Court has stated that absent a substantial and continuing change in circumstances that would make a prior order unreasonable, a difference in income alone cannot support a modification of child support in the first year after a divorce decree.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court finding and remanded for further proceedings.
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