Family Law Case: Paternity of M.W.; K.W. v. B.J.

ICLEF Family Law Weekly Case Review

Case: Paternity of M.W.; K.W. v. B.J.

Case Summary by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham McHale LLP

HELD: Trial court erred by denying Mother’s motion for relief from judgment of an order that had established paternity of Child and ordered joint legal and physical custody be shared between Mother and Father, where Mother was unaware that custody would be determined at hearing, Mother was unrepresented by counsel, and the trial court did not consider the best interests of Child in issuing the custody order.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY: On May 17, 2010, Mother gave birth to Child. Shortly thereafter, a Title IV-D action was initiated by the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor to establish paternity and child support.

A hearing was held on August 5, 2010. Mother appeared pro se; Father appeared with counsel; and the Prosecutor appeared on behalf of Child as to child support matters only. Father admitted paternity and, in questions from the bench, Father stated he would like joint legal and physical custody of Child, to which Mother responded that she had no objection. As a result, the trial court established paternity, ordered joint legal and physical custody (with the particulars of the equal time to be determined by the parties), and child support.

Some weeks later, counsel for Mother appeared and filed a motion to correct error and motion for relief from judgment. Mother set forth therein that, at the prior hearing, she was unrepresented by counsel, she did not understand the significance of the proceedings, that she incorrectly believed the Prosecutor was representing her, and that she does not believe that the custody and parenting time order was in Child’s best interests. Mother’s motions were denied by the trial court, from which Mother appealed.

Though the Court of Appeals noted the great discretion awarded to a trial court in such matters, and while the trial court conducted a hearing prior to issuing its order, “nothing in the record indicates that the trial court considered the best interests of [Child] before determining custody. Furthermore, Mother was unaware that custody would be at issue during the hearing, and at no time during the proceedings did she have benefit of counsel.” Thus, the trial court’s order was reversed and remanded for a new hearing to determine custody and parenting time.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Paternity of M.W.; K.W. v. B.J.

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