Family Law Case Review: Miller v. Carpenter

Case: Lorraine (Carpenter) Miller v. Karl Carpenter
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll  

HELD:  The Indiana Court of Appeals held that a modification of Father’s parenting time from roughly 35% to 40% of overnights was not so substantial or so close to an even division of parenting time that it should be viewed as a de facto modification of physical custody.

HELD:  Because more than a year had passed since the original child support order and Father’s obligation deviated from the Child Support Guidelines by more than 20%, the Court held the trial court did not err by reducing Father’s child support obligation.  Increasing Father’s parenting time credit was in the best interest of the children.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:  Mother and Father were previously married and have two children in common. The divorce decree, which incorporated the parties’ settlement agreement, gave Mother sole legal custody and primary physical custody of the children. Father had parenting time for about 127 overnights per year, but took a parenting time credit of only 98 overnights. About two years later, Father petitioned for joint legal custody, an increase in parenting time, and a decrease in child support. After a hearing, the trial court granted Father the requested relief. The decrease in child support was based on Mother’s increase in income, Mother’s decrease in child care costs, and an increase in the parenting time credit.

On appeal, Mother argued that the trial court erred by: (1) granting Father joint legal custody when the evidence did not support all the pertinent factors that must be considered; (2) modifying Father’s parenting time to such an extent that it was a de facto modification of physical custody; and (3) decreasing Father’s child support obligation when it should have imputed additional income to him and retained the agreed-upon parenting time credit of ninety-eight overnights.

The Court agreed with Mother that Father failed to show a substantial change in circumstances supporting a modification of legal custody and therefore reversed the trial court on that issue. However, the Court concluded that the trial court did not make a de facto modification of physical custody, but only a modification of parenting time. The Indiana Court of Appeals held that a modification of Father’s parenting time from roughly 35% to 40% of overnights was not so substantial or so close to an even division of parenting time that it should be viewed as a de facto modification of physical custody.  To modify parenting time, only a showing of the children’s best interests was required, and the Court found that the evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that the modification was in the children’s best interest.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s order as to parenting time.

As to child support, while the evidence showed that Father lived with his parents and did not pay for rent, maintenance, or utilities, Mother presented no evidence of the value of the expenses that Father’s parents pay for him, and her figure of $1335.33 per week in imputed income to Father was found to be completely arbitrary.  Thus the Court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding the evidence of imputed income too speculative.

The Court noted that the trial court did not give Father a full parenting time credit because it used 134 overnights when he really gets 147.  The Court also noted that the evidence showed that both parents have their housing subsidized by other adults.  The Court found that Mother did not show that the already reduced parenting time credit resulted in a windfall for Father. Thus, she did not persuade the Court that the trial court abused its discretion in calculating the parenting time credit.  The Court held that while the parties had previously negotiated both the parenting time credit and Father’s actual number of overnights (i.e., the credit for 98 overnights being premised on Father receiving about 127 actual overnights); nothing in the parties’ agreement contemplated that Father would continue to receive credit for only 98 overnights regardless of any parenting time modifications that might occur. The Court stated that this was not a situation where a parent was merely attempting to circumvent an agreement, as Father’s overnights had been increased to about 147 based on the children’s best interests.  The Court therefore ruled that it was likewise in the children’s best interests to adjust Father’s child support obligation to reflect this new reality.

Because more than a year had passed since the original support order and Father’s obligation deviated from the Child Support Guidelines by more than 20%, the Court found the trial court did not err by reducing Father’s child support obligation.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the trial court’s order as to child support.

OUTCOME:  Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Lorraine (Carpenter) Miller v. Karl Carpenter

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

Leave a Reply