Family Case Law Review: Trial Court Included Improper Automatic Child Custody Modification Term

Case: In Re The Paternity of C.J.A.: G.C. (Mother) v. T.A. (Father)
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll  (with thanks to Tamara McMillian)

HELD: Trial court’s order included an improper, automatic child custody modification term, which would have changed custody from Mother, to Father, in the event that Mother failed to relocate back to Indiana from South Carolina by a certain date.

In summer 2010, the trial court approved a custody and parenting time settlement agreement. After a tumultuous period, Mother and Father decided to reconcile and relocate with the minor child from Indiana to South Carolina for Mother to complete her college degree. Mother and Father agreed to joint legal and physical custody of minor child, then less than two years old, under an “Amended Second Provisional Order.” If the parties failed at reconciliation, Mother would have primary physical custody of minor child pending further order of the trial court. In November 2010, Mother and Father decided not to reconcile. Father initially agreed to pay $300 per week in child support, which Father later voluntarily increased to $500 per week. Mother remained in South Carolina and Father returned to Indiana. At the time, minor child spent one week per month with Father in Indiana, for which Father typically assumed the travel expenses.

In late 2012, Mother graduated and informed Father that she never intended to return to Indiana. Father requested a hearing. Mother and Father presented evidence that Mother obtained employment in South Carolina while Father continued to work in Indiana. Additionally, an expert testified that Father and minor child had an emotional bond and Father created a nurturing environment for minor child during his parenting time.

On January 7, 2013  the trial court Order provided that Mother could have returned to Indiana after her studies, both Mother and Father maintained a close bond with minor child and the traveling between two states for parenting time presented several challenges including unnecessary expenses. Mother failed to express how it was in the minor child’s best interest to parent the child in South Carolina. Moreover, Mother accepted a position in South Carolina aware that the Court had yet ruled on the pending issues. The trial court held that it was not in the child’s best interest to reside in South Carolina but in Indiana. Mother was temporarily awarded primary physical custody until March 31, 2013. If Mother failed to relocate from South Carolina to Indiana by March 31, 2013, on April 1, 2013 Father would be automatically awarded primary physical custody, without a hearing. Thus, primary physical custody was contingent upon where Mother resided.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the trial court’s ruling.

The Indiana Court of Appeals that the parties erred by litigating the current issues under the relocation statute and not the custody modification statute.  The Indiana Court of Appeals reasoned that the relocation statute was inappropriate because Mother and Father were never married and for two years Mother had primary physical custody within a separate state from Father. The Court also noted that prospective, automatic changes in custody based upon the occurrence (or nonoccurrence) of some event is improper.

The Court’s order was reversed, and remanded for further proceedings.

[Judge Brown dissented, expressing a belief that the trial court’s order was not an appealable final order, and that the appeal thus should be dismissed.]

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: In Re The Paternity of C.J.A.: G.C. (Mother) v. T.A. (Father)

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The Indiana Family Law Update is a free service provided by the Matrimonial Law Group of Bingham Greenebaum Doll, LLP. 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.

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