Family Law Case Review 2/14/11

Case: Adoption of L.E.; D.H. v. J.H. and J.E.

Case Summary by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham McHale LLP

HELD: Trial court erred when it granted an adoption petition without giving the custodial stepfather of the subject child 30 days, per statute, to file an objection to the adoption petition.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:

Stepfather and Mother married in 1999. At that time, Mother had a prior born child (“Child”) for whom paternity had not been established. [The opinion suggests an open question as to whether Child was Stepfather’s biological child.] During the parties’ marriage, two more children were born.

Stepfather and Mother divorced in 2007. Under their settlement agreement incorporated into the decree of the Johnson County Circuit Court, custody, parenting time, and support were determined as to the other children; however, the decree was silent as to Child.

In 2009, Stepfather filed in the divorce court an emergency petition for custody. Subsequently, the parties submitted, and the Johnson County Circuit Court approved, an agreed entry that provided Stepfather with joint legal custody and primary physical custody of all of the children — including Child.

In 2010, Mother’s father (“Grandfather”) filed in the Lawrence County Circuit Court a petition to adopt Child. Twenty-six days later, the court granted the adoption petition. Three days after that — but still within 30 days of the filing of Grandfather’s petition — Stepfather filed his objection to the adoption proceedings. Stepfather appeals the granting of Grandfather’s adoption petition.

The Court of Appeals first considered whether Stepfather had standing as to Child’s adoption proceedings. The Court concluded Stepfather had standing because of the prior Johnson County order that gave him joint legal custody of Child. The Court rejected Mother’s arguments that Stepfather was not the biological father of Child as an attempt to relitigate or undo an agreed entry to which she was a party, and which she never subsequently appealed. Thus, because the Johnson County custody order was valid, Stepfather had standing to consent or object to Grandfather’s adoption of Child.

The Court also noted that, by statute, such an objection by a party with standing must be filed within 30 days of service of the adoption petition. Here, Stepfather filed his objection timely. However, the Lawrence County Circuit Court had already granted the adoption petition. “The trial court erred when it failed to consider Stepfather’s objection [] because Stepfather was [Child’s] legal custodian pursuant to the Johnson County order. We therefore reverse the granting of Grandfather’s petition for adoption. Moreover, because the Johnson County court had entered a custody order involving [Child], it currently holds jurisdiction over any issues related to his custody. Thus the Lawrence circuit court has no jurisdiction and Grandfather’s petition must be dismissed.”

The trial court’s granting of Grandfather’s adoption petition was reversed.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Adoption of L.E.; D.H. v. J.H. and J.E.

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