The Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed an order giving a father physical custody of his child. The child’s maternal grandparents had assumed guardianship of the child following the death of the child’s mother.
Mother had custody of L.T., and father C.T. was granted parenting time and ordered to pay child support when mother died in October 2012. Her parents filed a petition in Hamilton Superior Court seeking guardianship of the child. Father purportedly consented and they were appointed co-guardians.
C.T.’s parents filed a petition in Marion Circuit Court to transfer the case to Marion County paternity court; the Hamilton County court transferred the case. It was consolidated with the maternal grandparents’ petition to adopt filed in probate court in Marion County. The Marion County court determined that Hamilton County did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the guardianship proceedings and terminated the grandparents’ guardianship. The court ordered the child immediately returned to C.T.
The Court of Appeals noted in In Re the Adoption of L.T.: J.M. and S.M. v. C.T., 49A05-1310-AD-493, that father confuses subject matter jurisdiction and venue. Had the subject of the child’s custody been first properly brought before the Marion County juvenile court for litigation, the Hamilton County probate court would have been precluded from making a custody determination regarding the same child, even if the child was a Hamilton County resident, Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote.
But the filing of a case in a county in which venue does not properly reside does not divest the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction.
The Hamilton County Superior Court, Probate Division did not lack subject matter jurisdiction to conduct guardianship proceedings. When the court was informed of its lack of proper venue and the Marion County paternity proceedings, the matter was transferred. Upon consolidation in the Marion County Superior Court, Probate Division, it was then incumbent upon the probate court to complete the proceeding. The probate court erred in granting relief from the guardianship order on grounds that the order was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Father argued that upon the child’s mother’s death, the child should have immediately been returned to him as the surviving parent since paternity had already been established.
“Ultimately, however, we need not decide whether, upon death of one parent, the surviving parent is entitled to automatic extinguishment of an existing guardianship. Those are not the circumstances of this case,” Bailey wrote. “Here, Father relinquished a right to custody of Child immediately upon Mother’s death. For reasons no yet developed in a best interests hearing, Father signed – subsequent to Mother’s death – a consent to guardianship of Child. As no hearing has been conducted, the record on appeal is devoid of any evidence of changed circumstances.”
The judges ordered a hearing on the best interests of the child.