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COA upholds child support order in peculiar case involving non-biological son

January 11, 2017
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A divorce involving a troubled husband, unfaithful wife and a 12-year lie unraveled into a child support and paternity dispute that ended with a split Indiana Court of Appeals ordering the non-biological father to provide financial assistance. Any other ruling, the majority reasoned, would leave the minor without a dad.

In Sheetz v. Sheetz, 01A05-1601-DR-80, Benjamin Sheetz appealed the trial court’s order that he pay child support for his non-biological offspring. The decision to affirm was not unusual since the Court of Appeals has ruled in other cases that spouses must provide for minors who are not naturally theirs.

However, Sheetz arises from a peculiar situation that the court has not encountered. Even Benjamin Sheetz’s attorney, Eric Orr, admitted, “This case is a tough case.”

Benjamin Sheetz was incarcerated when his wife, Ronnie Sheetz, became pregnant by another man. He told his wife not to contact the biological father or institute paternity proceedings. Instead, the couple told everyone the child was conceived during a conjugal visit and, for the next 12 years, Benjamin Sheetz raised the child, G.B.S., as his own.

In May 2014, Ronnie Sheetz filed for divorce. Benjamin Sheetz was ordered to pay child support for G.B.S. and two other children at the first provisional hearing. At the second hearing, he requested he not have to provide assistance to his non-biological child. At the final hearing, the Sheetzes stipulated he was not the natural father and that the wife was not waiving her right to seek child support for G.B.S.

The Court of Appeals upheld the child support order. Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik and Judge John Baker asserted Benjamin Sheetz was equitably estopped from rebutting the presumption that he is the child’s biological father. They noted he presented himself as the father for 12 years, and while public policy favors requiring the natural parent to pay child support, doing so in this case would make the child fatherless.

Judge Edward Najam disagreed. In his 15-page dissent, he argued that ordering a non-biological father to pay child support violates the state’s Dissolution of Marriage Act, Indiana Code 31-9-2-13. As underscored in Marriage of Snow v. England, 862 N.E.2d 664, 668 (Ind. 2007), the Act’s reference to “children of both parties in the marriage,” is “a term of art that refers only to natural and adoptive parents.”

Najam found that majority opinion reverses precedent and introduces uncertainty. “In order to avoid risk of an ‘equitable’ child support order, a husband who knows or suspects that his wife’s child is not his child but is the child of another man will now be encouraged, if not compelled, to disavow paternity as soon as possible and rupture the marriage rather than to keep the marriage and family intact,” he wrote.

Best interest over biology

Indianapolis family law attorney Richard Mann was not surprised by the appellate court’s decision.

He pointed out that the judiciary has tended to adhere to the long-held belief that the husband is the father of any children born during the marriage. Even as DNA testing has advanced to prove paternity, the court has been getting away from biology and focusing on what is in the best interest of the child.

“The court does not want to leave the child out there on a limb,” Mann said.

Last summer, the Court of Appeals in a case involving a lesbian couple, In re the Marriage of Kristy Gardenour v. Denise Bondelie, 32A01-1601-DR-82, unanimously concluded that Denise Bondelie, the non-birth mother, was the child’s legal parent under Indiana law. As such, she was awarded joint legal custody and parenting time as well as ordered to pay child support.

Kristy Gardenour has filed a petition to transfer.

orr-eric-mug.jpg Orr

Benjamin Sheetz did not seek transfer. Orr explained his client had to pay opposing counsel costs, which totaled about $7,300 after losing at the trial and appellate levels. Although Orr did offer to waive his fees for handling the transfer petition, Sheetz did not want to face the possibility of having to pay his ex-wife’s attorneys again if he lost at the Indiana Supreme Court.

With more than 20 years of family law experience, Harden Jackson LLC partner Lanae Harden knows judging these entanglements from the outside can be difficult because a lot of things can happen between spouses that are never made public. Still, she said it’s “very hard to read the facts of this case and not feel sympathy for the child.”

In the Sheetz decision, Harden believes the Court of Appeals enacted equitable estoppel not only for the best interest of the child but also because of the husband’s egregious behavior. He pretended to be the child’s father for several years.

Harden Harden

The majority was careful to emphasize the discretion of the trial courts, Harden continued, so that every non-biological father will not be on the hook for child support. Rather Vaidik and Baker specified such cases should be decided by their own circumstances. Indeed, the application of equitable estoppel requires the “good judgment of the factfinder” be utilized when examining the particulars of each situation.

Most interesting to Harden is the dispute among the panelists over the availability of a remedy for the mother. The majority maintained Ronnie Sheetz’s chances of success at finding the father have diminished because so many years have passed. But the dissenting judge noted she identified the father by name and could still possibly establish paternity.

Harden concurred that with the technology available today, tracking down the true father may not be such an arduous task.

Responsibility or punishment

Joseph Johnson II of DeVoss Johnson Zwick Baker & Ainsworth in Decatur represented Ronnie Sheetz. He reiterated the facts of the divorce and argued that after 12 years of being the child’s father, Benjamin Sheetz should not be allowed to turn his back and walk away.

“To me, he should be estopped from denying his responsibility to support the child,” Johnson said, pointing to the majority’s reasoning that equitable estoppel seeks to prevent an injustice created by the requirements of the law. “I think the trial court did the right thing. I think two judges on the Court of Appeals did the right thing.”

In his brief to the Court of Appeals, Johnson contended this case was most similar to those of artificial insemination. As with the husbands in Levin v. Levin, 645 N.E. 2d 601 (Ind. 1994) and Engelking v. Engelking, 982 N.E. 2d 327 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013), Benjamin Sheetz knew he was not the father and held himself publicly as the biological parent, leading his wife to believe he would help raise and support the child.

Orr, a solo practitioner based in Berne, argued in his brief that affirming the trial court’s ruling would “fundamentally alter the legal standard for the obligation of child support in Indiana.” Grandparents, stepparents and any other caregivers could find themselves being required to pay child support.

As Najam did, Orr pointed to R.D.S. v. S.L.S., 402 N.E.2d 30 (Ind. Ct. App. 1980), where another split panel determined a non-biological and non-adoptive father cannot be financially obligated under the doctrine of equitable estoppel to support a child.

“My whole position is that I think my client is being punished for voluntarily raising a child as his own,” Orr said.•

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