Consolidated Guardianship, Custody & Adoption Proceedings without an Evidentiary Hearing Was Erroneous

Case: In Re the Adoption of L.T.: J.M. and S.M. v. C.T.
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Trial court erred when it ruled that a guardianship order from another county was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; while the court in the other county may not have been preferred venue, it nevertheless had subject matter jurisdiction to issue its order.

HELD: A summary disposition of consolidated guardianship, custody, and adoption proceedings – without an evidentiary hearing – was erroneous.

NOTED: In dicta, the Court of Appeals expressed skepticism over whether Indiana law provides for an automatic change of custody to the surviving parent upon the death of a custodial parent.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Father previously established his paternity of Child in Marion County. Mother, who was Child’s custodial parent, passed away. Father then allowed Mother’s parents to assume guardianship of Child, and a guardianship order was issued by the Hamilton County Superior Court, even though Child did not reside in Hamilton County.

Father’s parents intervened in the guardianship matter, and secured its transfer to Marion County Superior Court, Probate Division, where it was consolidated with an adoption petition that had been filed by Mother’s parents. After a non-evidentiary hearing, the Marion County trial court agreed with Father that the Hamilton County guardianship order was void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and summarily awarded custody of Child to Father. Mother’s parents appealed.

The Court of Appeals reviewed the means by which subject matter jurisdiction is conferred upon a court, and the statutory basis upon which the Hamilton County Superior Court, Probate Division, had subject matter jurisdiction in this instance. While Indiana statute also provides that the preferred venue for a guardianship case is the county in which the child resides, that is distinct from the issue of subject matter jurisdiction. Thus, the Hamilton County court had subject matter jurisdiction to issue its guardianship order, and the Marion County trial court erred when it determined that order to be void for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Mother’s parents further argued that the Marion County trial court erred when it granted the change of custody of Child to Father without first holding a hearing on the best interests of Child. The Court of Appeals concluded that there is no basis in statute or case law that Father would become automatically entitled to custody of Child upon Mother’s death. However, the Court of Appeals concluded that it was not facing that issue in this case. Here, Father relinquished custody of Child to Mother’s parents upon Mother’s death. As such, an evidentiary hearing is necessary to develop the facts of the changed circumstances since Father relinquished custody, and the best interest of Child.

The trial court’s order was reversed, and remanded for a best interests evidentiary hearing.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: In Re the Adoption of L.T.: J.M. and S.M. v. C.T.

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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.
ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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