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Court of Appeals Relied upon “Equitable Estoppel” to Affirm Trial Court Order for Husband to Support Child of Mother by Another Man

Family Law Case Review

Case: Benjamin Sheetz v. Ronnie Sheetz
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll

HELD: Mother’s husband was equitably estopped from rebutting that he is the biological father of Child, who was born during Husband’s marriage to Mother, even though all concerned stipulated that Mother became pregnant with Child by another man while Husband was in prison. Critical to the equitable considerations of the holding, Husband agreed to raise Child as his own, he did so for 12 years, and Husband instructed Mother not to contact the biological father or to initiate paternity proceedings.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Mother and Husband married in 2002. Shortly thereafter, Husband went to prison, during which Mother became pregnant by another man. Mother notified Husband of her pregnancy by another man and, after a period of anger, Husband decided the parties would raise Child together. The parties did so for another 12 years, along with having two subsequent children together of their own. Husband told Mother not to seek communication with natural father, not to initiate paternity proceedings, and not to seek child support from him.

Mother filed for divorce from Husband in 2014. Initially, Husband agreed to a support order that included Child along with the two natural children. Prior to the final hearing, the parties entered into a stipulation that Husband was not the biological father of Child, but which further recited that Mother was not waiving any right to seek child support. After the final hearing, during which the trial court was well aware of Child’s underlying circumstances, a Decree was issued that included a support order for Child. Husband appealed.

The Court of Appeals discussed extensively, and relied heavily in its conclusion, on the doctrine of “equitable estoppel.” By statute, a husband is presumed to be the biological father of a child born during the marriage, but that presumption is rebuttable by “direct, clear, and convincing evidence.” Here, Husband was plainly capable of rebutting the presumption, so the Court of Appeals relied upon equitable estoppel to preclude him from doing so. As such, the trial court’s order providing for Husband to support Child was affirmed.

Judge Najam dissented, in an opinion longer than the majority’s, arguing that Indiana does not recognize equitable estoppel as a basis for a child support order. He contended that statute and related case law provide for a child support order only in the case of a parent of a biological or adopted parent, and Husband in this case was neither.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Benjamin Sheetz v. Ronnie Sheetz

 

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James A. Reed and Michael R. Kohlhaas of Bingham Greenebaum Doll represent clients in a wide spectrum of relationship transition and wealth planning matters, including premarital agreements, estate planning, 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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