The Indiana Supreme Court issued two opinions today dealing with incarceration being considered as a substantial change in circumstances to justify modifying a child support order and what date a modification may take place.
In Todd Allen Clark v. Michelle D. Clark, No. 35S05-0809-CV-506, the justices used the same reasoning it employed in Lambert v. Lambert, 861 N.E.2d 1176 (Ind. 2007), to justify modification of an existing child support obligation. Todd Clark went to prison after his original child support order had been instituted; he claimed he is unable to pay the $53 a week due to his incarceration. He filed a verified petition for abatement and/or modification order requesting it reduce, revoke, or abate his child support obligation until his release in 2013.
The trial court denied his petition and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, holding his incarceration constituted a substantial change in circumstances that could justify a modification.
Lambert only addressed whether pre-incarceration income shouldn't be imputed to an imprisoned parent when setting an initial child support order, but today's ruling extends to petitions to modify support based on the incarceration of a parent.
In Gary Becker v. Heather Becker, No. 49S04-0903-CV-113, the justices determined the effective date of modifying an existing child support order because of incarceration may not take effect on a date earlier than the date on which the petition to modify is filed.
Gary Becker petitioned for divorce in 1997 while he was incarcerated. The trial court set his weekly child support obligation at $110. In 2002, he filed a petition to modify because he received only $16 a month in prison. The trial court denied his request.
Becker invoked Lambert to request another modification of his child support obligation in 2007. The trial court reduced it to $25 a week effective the date of the Lambert decision; Becker appealed, arguing it should have been reduced retroactively to the date of the divorce.
The Supreme Court ruled the modification of a support obligation may only relate back to the date the petition to modify was filed and not an earlier date.
"We now hold that Lambert and Clark do not apply retroactively to modify child support orders already final, but only relate to petitions to modify child support granted after Lambert was decided. A trial court only has the discretion to make a modification of child support due to incarceration effective as of a date no earlier than the date of the petition to modify," wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.
The high court vacated the trial court's abatement of Becker's obligation to the extent that it was ordered retroactive to the date of Lambert and remanded for further proceedings.