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Justices decline to apply dollar for dollar credit for Social Security retirement benefits

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The Indiana Supreme Court Thursday declined to revisit previous caselaw regarding crediting Social Security Retirement benefits to a noncustodial parent’s child support obligation. The justices affirmed the trial court’s decision to include the benefits in the custodial parent’s weekly adjusted income.

Eric and Gillian Johnson divorced in 1999 and have two children. Gillian Johnson has physical custody and they share legal custody. Eric Gillian had to pay $90 per week per child for support, maintain health insurance for the children, and the two agreed to each pay 50 percent of the uninsured health care expenses.

After Eric Johnson retired, his ex-wife added the two children to her work insurance policy. But the parties disagreed as to the amount of credit Gillian Johnson was owed in the child support calculation because of the cost to insure the two children. Complicating the matter is a third child she had with a different man outside of her marriage with Eric Johnson. She was on the family plan to insure everyone; Eric argued that she should be on the individual plus one plan and awarded a credit equal to the difference between that plan and the family plan - $26.75 per week. She claimed her credit should be $76.67 per week, two-thirds of the cost of insuring all three of the children.

He also received Social Security Retirement benefits and wanted to credit that amount against his child support obligation.

The trial court credited Eric Johnson for the children’s Social Security benefits by including them in his ex-wife’s weekly adjusted income; the court also gave her the health insurance credit of $76.67 per week, reducing Eric Johnson’s child support obligation by $12 per week.

The justices affirmed the trial court on these two matters, finding its approach to be appropriate in light of the flexibility afforded by the Indiana Child Support Guidelines.

“In sum, while we acknowledge that other trial courts might approach this issue differently, when the Guidelines do not explicitly dictate a bright-line procedure to be followed our standard of review is flexible enough to permit the trial court judge to fashion child support orders that are tailored to the circumstances of the particular case before them and consequently reflect their best judgment. Here the trial court fashioned a solution that it believed was equitable to the parties and we are not left with a firm conviction that a mistake was made by its doing so. We therefore affirm the trial court with respect to the credit Gillian received for her health insurance premium costs,” Justice Steven David wrote in Richard Eric Johnson v. Gillian Wheeler Johnson, 49S05-1303-DR-199.

The justices also rejected Eric Johnson’s argument that he should receive a dollar for dollar credit for his retirement benefits, effectively negating his child support obligation, because that is expressly prohibited by Stultz v. Stultz, 659 N.E.2d 125 (Ind. 1995), and Thompson v. Thompson, 868 N.E.2d 862, 865 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007).

“Essentially, he is asking us to revisit Stultz and hold that the entitlement owed to his children by the government should relieve him of his financial obligation to provide support. This we will not do,” David wrote.

The justices summarily affirmed the Indiana Court of Appeals as to the remaining issues in the case.

 

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