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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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