Repudiation of Parent Time Terms & Mental Health Evaluation

Family Law Case Review
Case: Stone v. Stone
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Trial court acted within its discretion when it allowed Mother to repudiate the custody and parenting time terms of a mediated settlement agreement, yet enforced the property settlement terms of the same agreement over Father’s objection.

HELD: Trial court erred when it denied Father’s request for a continuance of a custody hearing, which continuance would have allowed the trial court time to receive a mental health evaluation on Father for its consideration.

HELD: Trial court erred when it order Father to pay $5,000 towards Mother’s attorney’s fees, when the parties’ mediated settlement agreement provided that each party would pay his/her own fees incurred during the time in question.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Father and Mother married in 1998, and had Child in 2000. In 2011, Mother filed for dissolution. The parties participated in mediation on December 22, 2011. Mediation resulted in a marital settlement agreement that provided for the parties to share joint legal and physical custody of Child (subject to review in one year), child support, property division, and that each party would pay his/her own legal fees incurred after the date of the mediation. The mediated settlement agreement was filed with the trial court, but the trial court declined to approve it as anything more than a provisional order pending the parties’ completion of the COPE class requirement.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Mother and Father became very turbulent, which is detailed at length in the opinion.  Mother nevertheless sought a renewed request that the trial court approve the settlement agreement. In response, the trial court indicated that it would not do so without explanation as to how the custody and parenting time arrangement set forth in the agreement was in Child’s best interests, and a hearing was set. Mother then filed with the trial court that she no longer believed the parenting time terms in the agreement were in Child’s best interests; Father filed a motion seeking to set aside the entirety of the mediated settlement agreement, not merely the custody terms.

At a subsequent hearing, Mother introduced extensive evidence about the problems she had with Father. The hearing ran out of time before Father could put on his own evidence, but at the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court recommended that Father undertake a mental health evaluation. A second hearing date was scheduled before Father’s mental health evaluation could be completed; Father filed a motion for a continuance, which was denied.

Following the second hearing, and without the benefit of Father’s mental health evaluation, the trial court issued its Decree. The Decree incorporated all property division terms from the mediated settlement agreement, noting there was no evidence it had been procured by unfairness or fraud. Included in the approved portion of the agreement was the term that each party would pay his/her own legal fees incurred after the mediation date. However, the trial court declined to approve the children’s terms of the mediated agreement; instead, Mother was awarded sole legal and primary physical custody of Child, and

Father was given supervised parenting time in durations much less than set forth in the IPTG.  The trial court made numerous specific findings about Father’s “irrational behavior” and “mental instability.” Finally, the trial court ordered Father to pay $5,000 towards Mother’s attorney’s fees.

Two days after the Decree was issued, the Marion County Family Court Project filed its mental health evaluation of Father. It concluded Father to be “relatively stable and appropriate,” that he “does not present with any significant psychological difficulties,” and the psychologist preparing the report did not recommend any treatment for Father.

In response, Father filed a motion to correct error and for a new trial, which was denied. Father appealed.

I.    Custody Settlement Agreement
The Court of Appeals provided a detailed history of the case law involving repudiation of marital settlement agreements. Ultimately, an agreement on children’s issues is controlled by a “best interests” standard, and a parent seeking repudiation of a custody agreement has the right to present the trial court with evidence, in support of repudiation, that the custody agreement is not in the child’s best interests.  Thus, here, the trial court acted within its discretion when it permitted Mother to pursue repudiation.

Notably, the Court of Appeals underscored that there should be no nexus or linkage between the custody terms of the agreement, and the property settlement terms of the agreement: parents should not be able to “buy” better custody and parenting time through more generous property settlement arrangements. Thus, a trial court is free, with good cause, to reject the terms of an agreement as to custody and parenting time, yet approve the property settlement terms.

II.   Denial of Continuance
The Court of Appeals found error in the denial of Father’s requested continuance. While generally decisions regarding continuances are afforded great discretion, here, the facts were that Father had proceeded in a timely manner, that the process would have benefitted from receiving Father’s mental health evaluation, and Mother would not have been prejudiced by the delay. Thus, the decision to deny Father’s requested continuance was error.

In siding with Father, the Court of Appeals advised: “we reverse and remand for the trial court to conduct a new hearing and issue a new ruling only with respect to child custody, under the standard for original child custody orders and not modifications; the trial court should give great, but not binding weight to the parties’ mediated settlement agreement….”

III.   Attorney Fee Award
Father also appealed the trial court’s award of $5,000 to Mother for fees she incurred after the parties’ mediation. The Court of Appeals agreed. Because the mediated settlement agreement was reached and executed without fraud or unfairness, its term that each party would pay his/her own attorney’s fees after mediation was binding. Therefore, it was error for the trial court to issue a contradictory fee award. The attorney fee award was reversed.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Kevin C. Stone v. Jennifer M. Stone

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While significant efforts are made to ensure an accurate summary and reproduction of each opinion, readers are advised to verify all content and analysis with a traditional case law reporter before relying on the content and analysis offered here.

The Matrimonial Law Group of Bingham Greenebaum Doll, LLP is one of the largest full-service matrimonial and family law practices in the State of Indiana. We represent clients in a wide spectrum of family law matters, including premarital agreements, cohabitation, separation, divorce (especially involving high net worth individuals and/or complex asset issues), custody, parenting arrangements, adoption, and domestic partnerships. Bingham Greenebaum Doll, a multidisciplinary law firm serving regional, national, and international clients, is the fourth-largest law firm in Indiana. The firm’s main practices include corporate, property, litigation, labor, government law, and personal services law. Visit the firm’s website at www.bgdlegal.com.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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