Family Law Review: Douglas v. Indiana FSSA

Case: Jonathon D. Douglas v. State of Indiana and Indiana Family & Social Services Admin., as Assignee of the Support Rights of Mechelle (Allen) McCrory

Case Summary – by Mike Kohlhaas 

HELD: The Clark and Lambert cases, which hold generally that a reduction in a parent’s income due to incarceration may serve as a basis for modifying child support, apply even to a parent who is incarcerated for nonpayment of child support. Further, incarceration for nonsupport does not amount to voluntary underemployment under the Guidelines.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Father was the subject of child support orders related to three dependent children from two prior marriages. After failing to pay child support as ordered, in 2004 Father was charged with Class C felony nonsupport. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years, with seven suspended to probation. However, in 2008, Father’s probation was revoked as a result of his continued nonpayment of support.

Father subsequently sought a modification of support due to his incarceration. The trial court denied Father’s motion, distinguishing the facts of Father’s case from those in Clark and Lambert in that the instant case involved a parent who was incarcerated not for entirely unrelated criminal activity, but for the nonpayment of child support. The trial court also reasoned that the language in Clark was discretionary, in that incarceration “may” — not “shall” — serve as a basis for modification. As such, Father’s petition to modify support due to incarceration for nonsupport was denied. Father appealed.

On review, the Court of Appeals considered the application of Clark and Lambert to Father’s case. The Court noted that the Indiana Supreme Court expressed no apparent intent to create exceptions to its Clark and Lambert holdings, such as in the event the incarceration arose from nonsupport, and that such exceptions would be for the Indiana Supreme Court, not the Court of Appeals, to carve out. The Court also stated that the purpose of a child support calculation is to generate an intellectually honest economic allocation of the cost of raising a child, not to be punitive; there are other statutory mechanisms that are intended to be punitive for nonpayment of support, including the criminal provision of which Father was convicted. Importantly, the Court also concluded that incarceration, even for nonpayment of child support, cannot be considered “voluntary underemployment” under a Guidelines calculation.

Finally, the Court of Appeals applied an interpretation to the language in Clark that appears on its face to be discretionary — “incarceration may serve as a changed circumstance . . . to make the terms of the support order unreasonable.” “[W]e interpret Lambert and Clark together to mean that, as a general matter, incarceration shall constitute a change in circumstances so substantial and continuing as to make the terms of an existing order unreasonable unless the obligor has income or assets available to underwrite his or her support obligation.”

The trial court’s order denying Father’s requested modification was denied, and the matter was remanded for a modification absent a determination that Father has assets or other sources of income available to underwrite his support obligations while incarcerated.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Jonathon D. Douglas v. State of Indiana and Indiana Family & Social Services Admin., as Assignee of the Support Rights of Mechelle (Allen) McCrory

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