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Judges split on child support modification

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An Indiana Court of Appeals judge dissented from his colleagues, finding their decision regarding child support promotes “formalism over fairness and legalism over common sense.”

Timothy D. Sexton challenged the denial of his petition for emancipation regarding one of his three children and for modification of child support. After divorcing, Donna Sedlak was eventually given primary physical custody of their three children and Sexton was ordered to pay child support. In 2005, Sedlak filed a petition for modification of child support claiming the 2002 order was unreasonable and asked that it be discontinued. No action was ever taken on that petition.

In 2006, the parents executed a notarized custody and child support agreement, agreeing two children would live with Sexton and neither party would pay child support. This wasn’t ever filed with the court. A couple of years later, Sexton quit his job and collected unemployment.

The trial court held a hearing on Sexton’s petition for emancipation and child support modification and found his net arrearage to be more than $28,000 and modified his child support to $117 per week back to June 2009 for his two dependent children. By this time, one child was emancipated.

In Timothy D. Sexton v. Donna M. (Sexton) Sedlak, No. 49A04-1005-DR-330, the majority rejected Sexton’s argument that his modification of child support should have dated back to September 2005 when Sedlak filed her petition for modification of child support, or to 2006 when the parties notarized an agreement on custody and child support instead of June 2009 when he filed his petition for modification. His child support order was an order in gross, which is a specified sum of undivided support for several children. In support, the judges cited Whited v. Whited, 859 N.E.2d 657, 662 (Ind. 2007), which prohibits any reduction in child support obligation unless there were no children dependent on his support who were living with Sedlak.

Judge James Kirsch dissented on this point, believing the trial court erred in finding Sexton in contempt for nonpayment of support of more than $28,000.

“Prohibiting the retroactive modification of support, particularly of a support order in gross, has the potential to lead to absurd and unfair consequences, and our Supreme Court has recognized that doing so ‘may occasionally cause inequities,’” he wrote. “This case is one of such inequities.”

He believed the rule prohibiting retroactive modifications doesn’t apply because the parties sought such a modification in 2005. Although it declined to enter an agreed entry on Sedlak’s 2005 petition, the trial court never ruled upon the petition, which remains pending. Judge Kirsch believed the trial court should modify the support order retroactive to the date of Sedlak’s petition in September 2005.

The majority also affirmed the denial of Sexton’s request to emancipate his child T.S. They did find the trial court erred in determining his child support obligation without considering T.S.’s income. They reversed the child support obligation of $117 a week and remanded for the court to determine his obligation in light of T.S.’s income.

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  1. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

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