Termination of ex’s house payment obligation reversed

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a decision that found an “ambiguous” dissolution settlement agreement made no indication as to the father’s child support obligations and that his payments for a mortgage and car would supplement them.

In their 2008 marriage dissolution, Tamera Copple and Huel Swindle incorporated a settlement agreement in which the parties agreed that Swindle would “be solely responsible for the payments on the party’s marital residence including taxes and insurance until such time as the house is paid off.”

The agreement also held that the house payments would be coupled with the obligation on a 2006 Impala “in lieu of child support and be part of the distribution of property.”

In early 2017, the younger child, then 22 years old, married, and Swindle stopped making his payments on the marital residence. Copple filed a motion for Rule to Show Cause alleging Swindle had failed to make the February mortgage payment. Swindle argued his obligation to pay should be terminated and filed a petition for modification alleging the marital residence payments constituted child support and the minor children were both “emancipated as a matter of law.”

The Johnson Superior Court found that the settlement agreement failed to establish a child support amount, making it ambiguous and unenforceable. The trial court then terminated Swindle’s obligation to make any further payments, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in a Friday ruling.

Appellate judges found the trial court’s finding that the debt obligation equated to child support was in error and obligated to both child support and property distribution.

“The trial court’s order misstated the decree when it found the decree made ‘no indication as to [Father’s] child support obligation, only that his paying the debt on the marital residence and the 2006 Chevy Impala ‘shall be in lieu of child support,’” Judge Melissa May wrote for court. “The decree actually indicated the residence payments and the payments on the vehicle were to ‘be in lieu of child support and be part of the distribution of property.”

In its determination, the appellate court noted that while Swindle’s obligation to pay child support was modifiable by statute, any payment pursuant to property distribution was not.

Additionally, while Swindle’s payments were indeed categorized ambiguously, “the duration of the payment was unequivocal” and “ascertainable at the time the agreement was made in 2008.”

“Therefore, payments Father was ordered to make on the marital residence are an agreement on property division and not child support and, thus, not modifiable without a showing of fraud, duress, or undue influence,” May concluded.

The appellate court also ordered the trial court to reconsider on remand the award of attorney fees to Copple, as well as remand its determination that Swindle was not in contempt by failing to make the payments required by his property settlement agreement.

The case is Tamara Jean (Swindle) Copple v. Huel Dwayne Swindle, 41A01-1710-DR-2471.

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