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Justices: Child support agreement must apply changing guidelines

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A father whose annual income included varying bonuses and commissions is obligated to provide child support payments in line with evolving guidelines, despite a support agreement made a year earlier than the rules were revised, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled.

Justices on Thursday affirmed a ruling of Allen Superior Judge Pro Tem Thomas Boyer in Courtney L. Schwartz v. Jodi S. Heeter, 02S03-1301-DR-18, which overturned a divided opinion of the Court of Appeals.

Justice Loretta Rush wrote that the mother and father made a commendable agreement in 2009 laying out the father’s child support obligations in which he would pay a fixed amount based on regular income plus a lump-sum annual amount calculated from the varying income from bonuses and commissions governed by a distribution clause in the agreement. The guidelines changed in 2010.

“We therefore face a question of contract interpretation: Does the Agreement incorporate the version of the Guidelines in effect at the time the Agreement was made, or the one in effect for each particular year’s income? The trial court interpreted the Agreement as incorporating the version that applied to a particular year’s income, and we agree,” Rush wrote in a unanimous opinion.

“Since the Guidelines are regularly amended to fit changing economic conditions, we hold that this Agreement anticipates and incorporates those future changes, because it does not specify otherwise.”

The change in Child Support Guidelines in 2010 resulted in the trial court ordering the father to pay an arrearage of $38,376 for 2010 income based on a “true up” clause in the agreement, but the majority of a Court of Appeals panel reversed that determination of the trial court. Dissenting COA Judge Paul Mathias would have affirmed the trial court as the justices did.

“The Court of Appeals majority found the parties intended for Father to use the 2009 Guidelines in perpetuity. In coming to this defensible conclusion, the majority determined the 2009 Guidelines and formula were “factors” the Distribution Clause required to stay the same. But in interpreting a contract, we should not look at particular words in isolation,” Rush wrote.

“We read the Distribution Clause as requiring Father to calculate each year’s child-support obligation by applying the version of the Guidelines applicable to that year’s income. The language and structure of the Distribution Clause, the regularly changing nature of the Guidelines, and the basic purpose of those periodic changes and of child support generally, all lead us to that conclusion,” the court concluded.

 
 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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