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COA reverses denial of prisoner's petition

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the denial of an incarcerated man's petition for child support modification after determining the trial court incorrectly imputed his weekly gross income.

The appellate court often looked to the Indiana Supreme Court ruling in Lambert v. Lambert, 861 N.E.2d 1176 (Ind. 2007), to determine the trial court erred in denying Joshua March's pro se petition in the case In the Matter of the Guardianship of R.M.M., No. 09A02-0808-CV-725.

March was incarcerated when guardianship of his daughter, R.M.M., was awarded to her great-aunt and uncle. At the time guardianship was established, March and R.M.M.'s mother, who was also incarcerated, were ordered to pay $15 in child support weekly. Later, the great-aunt and uncle petitioned to modify the order, arguing that Indiana's Child Support Guidelines require a total obligation based on an assumed federal minimum wage. The trial court modified the child support order so that March had to pay $67 per week and determined his weekly gross income while incarcerated was $210.

In his appeal, March argued the child support order was inconsistent with Lambert and Indiana law, and that he only made $6 a month.

The Court of Appeals looked to Lambert for guidance on the instant case, even though the circumstances of the cases differ. That case involved a question of whether incarceration justified reducing an existing support order; March had been incarcerated the entire time of the modifications to his support order.

March argued that Lambert mandates that an incarcerated parent's income shouldn't be imputed to minimum wage if the parent isn't actually making a 40-hour minimum wage income. While Lambert doesn't expressly say that, March may have a point, wrote Judge Michael Barnes, given that the Commentary to the Guidelines indicates the guidelines don't establish a minimum support obligation. The Lambert ruling only cautioned trial courts from imputing income based on "pre-incarceration wages" or "other employment-related income."

Another Court of Appeals panel ruled on this issue in Clark v. Clark, 887 N.E.2d 1021, 1051, (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), - which has been transferred to the Supreme Court - in which the panel ruled minimum wage shouldn't be interpreted as a cut-off amount for child support payments.

The error in the instant case is that the trial court didn't base its calculation of March's support on actual income or assets available to him, as is instructed in Lambert, wrote Judge Barnes.

The Court of Appeals remanded for further fact-finding proceedings regarding March's current actual earnings and assets with modification of his child support order obligation in line with those findings, and any modification would be retroactive to the date he filed his petition.

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