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Court rules on inclusion of survivor benefits in child support obligation

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The Indiana Court of Appeals was faced with a situation not specifically addressed in the Child Support Guidelines and Commentary or in any Indiana case – whether Social Security survivor benefits paid to children due to the death of a custodial parent’s subsequent spouse are or should be included in the custodial parent’s weekly gross income.

In Fred N. Martinez v. Susan K. Deeter, No. 32A01-1108-DR-359, ex-spouses Fred Martinez and Susan Deeter appealed the trial court’s ruling on how much child support Martinez owed Deeter for 2007 and whether their children’s survivor benefits should be included in the calculation of Deeter’s weekly gross income for child support purposes.

Martinez and Deeter have three children, who lived with Deeter. She remarried and when her husband passed away, she and the two youngest children received survivor benefits in August 2007. Previously, they were receiving disability benefits, but could not receive both. That same year, the oldest child began living with Martinez.

The trial court included the children’s survivor benefits when determining how much child support Martinez owed.

On appeal, Martinez argued that the trial court erred in calculating the child support owed on his 2007 bonuses, by failing to adjust his effective tax rate and by making inconsistent findings. The Court of Appeals agreed, ordering the trial court to take another look at the matter. The trial court made conflicting findings that Martinez both owed $51,000 and he owed more than $7,200 in child support for 2007. The judges ordered the trial court recalculate his 2007 child support obligation and clarify the issue on remand whether the trial court intended to use his proposed adjusted tax rate.

Deeter argued on appeal that the court erred in using the survivor benefits from the children in her weekly gross income and in denying her request for attorney fees. The appellate court found different language in the guidelines and the commentary regarding survivor benefits – the guideline excludes “survivor benefits received by or for other children residing in either parent’s home” and the commentary excludes “survivor benefits paid to or for the benefit of their children.”

The COA found the language of both indicates that survivor benefits received by or for children aren’t includable in a parent’s weekly gross income. Inclusion of those benefits would result in a windfall to Martinez. This will require the trial court to recalculate the child support from 2007 through the present time.

The judges also ordered Deeter’s attorneys to provide clear authority to the trial courts, if any exists, to support the withholding of their attorney fees from Deeter’s child support judgment. The trial court ordered the child support judgment in her favor be paid first to her attorneys. The COA also directed the trial court on remand to recalculate the appropriate ratio of post-secondary education expenses to be paid by the parents.

 

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