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COA: Summons should notify of risk of default judgment

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Due process requires that a respondent in a dissolution proceeding be notified of the risk of default for not appearing or otherwise responding, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday. The judges reversed a couple’s decree of dissolution, ruling it was void because the summons served on the wife was insufficient.

In Stephanie L. Cotton v. Charles C. Cotton, No.43A03-1005-DR-325, Stephanie Cotton appealed the denial of her motion to set aside the decree of dissolution dissolving her marriage to Charles. She argued the decree was void for insufficiency of process.

The summons she received was typewritten and prepared by Charles’ counsel. It told her that she or her attorney may appear and that she may respond, but nothing in it required her to do anything in response to the petition having been filed, other than appear before the court if directed to do so. There’s no evidence Stephanie was directed by the court to do anything.

Stephanie didn’t appear or respond because she believed they were trying to reconcile. Charles continued with the petition and the dissolution court defaulted Stephanie and entered the final dissolution decree, which involved custody of their son. After learning of the decree, she obtained counsel and tried to set aside the decree, arguing the summons didn’t comply with Indiana Trial Rule 4(C)(5).

The language of T.R. 4(C)(5) doesn’t squarely address the circumstances in this case, where no response was necessary as no responsive pleading is required in the dissolution of marriage. But due process requires notice and an opportunity to be heard, wrote Judge Edward Najam, and Stephanie was entitled to notice that a default judgment could be entered if she didn’t appear or respond.

“… the summons stated only that the final hearing may be held after sixty days from the date the petition was filed. Without a statement of the consequences, namely, that judgment could be entered without further notice should Wife fail to appear or otherwise respond, the summons did not satisfy due process or comply with the intent of Trial Rule 4(C)(5),” he wrote. “Accordingly, the dissolution court did not obtain personal jurisdiction over Wife, and the dissolution decree is void as a matter of law.”

The judges also held the summons was insufficient under Trial Rule 4.15(F). They reversed the entry of the dissolution decree and remanded for further proceedings.

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  1. Ah yes... Echoes of 1963 as a ghostly George Wallace makes his stand at the Schoolhouse door. We now know about the stand of personal belief over service to all constituents at the Carter County Clerk door. The results are the same, bigotry unable to follow the directions of the courts and the courts win. Interesting to watch the personal belief take a back seat rather than resign from a perception of local power to make the statement.

  2. An oath of office, does it override the conscience? That is the defense of overall soldier who violates higher laws, isnt it? "I was just following orders" and "I swore an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer" etc. So this is an interesting case of swearing a false oath and then knowing that it was wrong and doing the right thing. Maybe they should chop her head off too like the "king's good servant-- but God's first" like St Thomas More. ...... We wont hold our breath waiting for the aclu or other "civil liberterians" to come to her defense since they are all arrayed on the gay side, to a man or should I say to a man and womyn?

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  5. Pence said when he ordered the investigation that Indiana residents should be troubled by the allegations after the video went viral. Planned Parenthood has asked the government s top health scientists at the National Institutes of Health to convene a panel of independent experts to study the issues surrounding the little-known branch of medicine.

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