An Indiana trial court erred in ordering parties in a paternity dispute to abide by the terms of a mediation agreement because the man who initially brought the paternity action did not have standing to do so, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.
S.B. was in a relationship with both M.M. and B.H. when she became pregnant with S.A.M., but on the day S.A.M. was born, M.M. executed a paternity affidavit acknowledging he was the child’s biological father. M.M. went on the share custody of the child, who refers to him as “Dad.”
At some point during S.A.M.’s life, questions regarding his paternity arose, but B.H. died before he could establish paternity through DNA testing or other methods. After B.H.’s death, his father, M.H., filed as the child’s next friend to establish that B.H. was the child’s biological father.
M.H. then filed a “Request for Custody or in the Alternative Request for Grandparent Visitation.” M.M. intervened and filed a motion to dismiss, claiming M.H. was not a person who could file a paternity action under Indiana Code section 31-14-4-1. The Madison Circuit Court denied that motion, then ordered the parties to mediation.
M.M. and M.H. eventually entered a mediation agreement stipulating that B.H. was the child’s biological father, but that M.M. and S.B. would share joint legal custody, while M.M. would have primary physical custody. The agreement also gave M.H. and his wife grandparent visitation while stipulating that M.H. would not discuss “the biological relationships of the parties” with S.A.M. without authorization.
However, when M.M. learned that M.H. had told the child that B.H. was his biological father, M.M. stopped honoring the agreement’s provisions regarding visitation. After a series of motions and hearings, M.M. and S.B. entered into an agreement that established paternity in M.M. and alleged M.H. and his wife had injured S.A.M. by saying the child’s biological father was dead.
Then, at a hearing in April 2017, M.M. moved to set aside the agreement as void. The court, however, denied that motion and found M.H. had standing to bring his petitions as a third party, if not under the grandparent visitation statute. The court also denied M.M.’s motion for attorney fees.
On appeal in In re the Paternity of: S.A.M. (Child), M.M. v. M.H., S.B., 48A05-1704-JP-922, M.M. again argued that M.H. lacked standing to bring the paternity action as S.A.M.’s next friend, so the agreement was void. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, reversing the trial court’s ruling in a Friday opinion.
Drawing on precedent from JR.S. v. Stockton, 886 N.E.2d 611, 614 (Ind. App. Ct. 2008), Judge Melissa May wrote that “it is up to (S.B.) and (M.M.) … to decide whether to initiate a paternity proceeding for S.A.M.”
“Because a lack of standing cannot be cured, the trial court’s order for the parties to conduct mediation, the resulting Mediation Agreement granting visitation rights to M.H., and the trial court’s order approving the agreement, are void,” May said.
Finally, the appellate court remanded the case for the trial court to determine the proper amount of attorney fees M.H. should pay father, as “this case has been allowed to proceed for over four years without M.H. having ever had standing… .”