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COA: Court must hold another hearing on custody

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A trial court may refuse to approve a settlement agreement entered into by parents regarding custody of minor children, the Indiana Court of Appeals pointed out Tuesday, but in this case, the court erred by not granting the father’s motion for a continuance regarding his mental health evaluation.

The judges ordered a new hearing on custody of M.S., the daughter of Kevin and Jennifer Stone. The two entered into a settlement agreement regarding custody and division of marital property and asked the court to approve it. But the judge decided not to approve the portion regarding custody, citing concerns about Kevin Stone’s mental health. He made threats to Jennifer Stone after the divorce was filed and communicated with her family, her neighbors and M.S.’s teacher that Jennifer Stone was a fraud, thief and liar. He also refused to communicate with her unless through their child.

Kevin Stone sought three continuances of the hearing on the custody issue so he could hire counsel and obtain a mental health evaluation that the judge ordered. But the judge denied his motions and ruled that Jennifer Stone should have sole custody of M.S., with Kevin Stone having supervised parenting time. The judge noted that she would consider the results of the evaluation at a later hearing. The evaluation found no reason that Kevin Stone shouldn’t have some custody of his child.

In Kevin C. Stone v. Jennifer M. Stone, 49A02-1210-DR-820, the Court of Appeals affirmed that the trial judge could reject the parties’ settlement agreement regarding child custody. The judges pointed to statements made by Kevin Stone that he gave up the marital residence so that he could have joint legal and physical custody of M.S. This is why courts must review agreements on child custody, to ensure children aren’t being used as bargaining chips, Judge Michael Barnes wrote.

“If a party is having second thoughts about the propriety of a child custody agreement, we do not see why a trial court should be prohibited from taking such reluctance into consideration when deciding how thoroughly to examine whether the agreement suits the child’s best interests, which is the ‘overriding’ concern in any dissolution where children are involved — a concern that trumps the interest in promoting the settlement of disputes,” he wrote.

But the judge abused her discretion in denying the continuance relating to Kevin Stone’s mental health evaluation. The judge had concerns about his mental health regarding custody and there was no evidence or testimony to support the findings made by the judge. A continuance wouldn’t prejudice Jennifer Stone, so the judges ordered a new hearing on custody.

The COA also reversed the portion of the order that Kevin Stone pay $5,000 in attorney fees to Jennifer Stone.
 

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