Family Law Case Review 2/25/11

Case: Stephanie L. Cotton v. Charles C. Cotton

Case Summary by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham McHale LLP

HELD: To comply with the Indiana Trial Rules and Due Process, the summons served with a petition for dissolution of marriage must include a clear statement to the Respondent of the risk of default for failure to appear or otherwise respond.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:

Husband and Wife married in 2002. In March 2009, Husband filed a petition for dissolution of marriage. Wife was served with a summons and copy of the petition, but she did not appear personally or by counsel, nor did she respond to the petition. Husband continued to live in the marital residence for five months after filing, leading Wife to believe that the parties were working on reconciliation and that Husband was not pushing finalization of the dissolution.

However, in September 2009, Husband and his counsel attended a final hearing. Wife had not appeared personally or by counsel, and she received no notice of the final hearing. In Wife’s absence, and following only Husband’s testimony, the trial court defaulted Wife and entered a final dissolution decree that included an award of joint legal and physical custody of the parties’ son, and divided the marital estate. Wife subsequently learned of the Decree, hired counsel, and filed a T.R. 60 motion to set aside the Decree, which was denied. Wife appealed.

On appeal, Wife contended that the Decree was void because it was entered without personal jurisdiction over her, due to insufficiency of process; specifically, the summons used by Husband included language to Wife that she “may personally appear” and that “[y]ou must appear before the Court if directed to do so pursuant to a Notice, Order of the Court, or Subpoena,” but no language articulating a risk of default for doing nothing. In reviewing the summons, the Court of Appeals summarized the applicable law of insufficiency of process, and concluded: “We hold that due process requires that, at a minimum, a respondent in a dissolution proceeding be notified of the risk of default for failure to appear or otherwise respond.”

In this instance, the subject summons presented Wife with the option of appearing or responding to the petition, but did not provide notice to her that the trial court could take further and final action without further notice to her. The Court of Appeals added, “the command of Trial Rule 4(C)(5), grounded in due process, is that the respondent in a dissolution proceeding must be given notice in a ‘clear statement’ of the risk of default for failure to appear or other respond . . . ” Concluding that the subject summons did not comply with Trial Rule 4(C)(5), or the Due Process Clause, the dissolution decree was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Stephanie L. Cotton v. Charles C. Cotton

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