COA agrees father was underemployed but remands child support order

A father who was found to be voluntarily underemployed after his wife filed for divorce received a partial reversal Friday when the Court of Appeals of Indiana noted questions remained about his job opportunities and earnings level.

From 2016 to 2018, Jeremy Walters served as the sole breadwinner of the family by working in the pipeline industry. His job was in West Virginia, requiring him to live apart from his wife, Jamie, and three children for months at a time.

Prior to 2019, Jeremy had never been unemployed for more than one month at a time. His adjusted gross income during the years in West Virginia ranged from $185,866 to $215,050.

While married to Jamie, Jeremy allegedly told her on numerous occasions that if they divorced, he would not pay child support, would become a “deadbeat” and a “bum” and would refuse to allow anyone to dictate his access to their children.

The final time he said such things to Jamie was in 2019, the same year she filed for divorce. At that point, Jeremy had lost his pipeline job and remained unemployed until May 2021, when he began working as a car salesman in Illinois making $2,500 per month. However, he never informed Jamie that he had been laid off.

During the final hearing in the divorce proceedings, Jamie requested that the Fountain Circuit Court impute a gross weekly income of $3,920 per week to Jeremy, a figure she came to by averaging his West Virginia income from 2016 to 2018. For his part, Jeremy requested that his child support obligation be based on his gross weekly income from the car dealership at $577.

The trial court ultimately imputed weekly gross income of $3,875.06 to Jeremy based on his average weekly income from 2016 to 2018. It also granted primary physical custody of the children to Jamie.

In partially affirming that decision, the Court of Appeals found the trial court’s determination that Jeremy was voluntarily underemployed was supported by the evidence and was, therefore, not clearly erroneous.

The COA found Jeremy’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion unpersuasive. Further, the appellate court said it did not believe that affirming the trial court’s decision would “unnecessarily promote litigation” among Indiana courts.

But as for child support, the COA found the trial court’s order to be clearly erroneous based on the lack of evidence in the record regarding prevailing job opportunities and earnings levels in his Midwestern community.

The appellate court thus remanded for additional evidence to be presented on those two factors, observing as it did in Miller v. Miller, 72 N.E.3d 952 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017), that the trial court “is free to reevaluate and revise its order if it deems it to be necessary.”

“Therefore, on remand, the trial court shall hear additional evidence on the enumerated factors, but it is not required to enter findings of fact and conclusions thereon as to each,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote Friday in Jeremy A. Walters v. Jamie E. Walters, 21A-DC-2218.

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