December 18, 2005
Case Law Development: Effect of Parent's Incarceration on Initial Child Support Determination
The Indiana Court of Appeals held that in making an initial child support calculation in cases in which a parent is incarcerated, the court should impute income to the parent consistent with the earning before the criminal activity resulting in their incarceration. The issue was one of first impression in the state and the court surveyed opinions of other jurisdictions on the matter, but ultimately arrived at its ruling on public policy considerations. A dissent viewed the majority's approach as "additional punishment."
Lambert v. Lambert, 2005 Ind. App. LEXIS 2336 (December 15, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/12150501mgr.pdf (last visited December 17, 2005 bgf)
The majority opinion reasons that "Unemployment by incarceration does not fall squarely into our standard child support rubric. Although it is not an act undertaken for the purpose of avoiding child support, it is clearly not an act undertaken for a legitimate purpose. We are guided, as in all child custody, support, and visitation matters, by the best interests of the child.... When a parent has voluntarily taken a reduction in income for a legitimate purpose, such as being closer to his or her children or caring for his or her aging and ill parents, we are weighing one positive public policy -- adequate support for children -- against another positive public policy -- quality of life for all family members. When a parent has no such legitimate reason for the reduction in income, we are weighing the positive public policy of support for children against the negative public policy of "rewarding" bad behavior. We find no reason to treat an incarcerated parent any differently than a non-custodial parent who has a higher income imputed because of a voluntary decision causing an unnecessary decline in income. Not only is incarceration a foreseeable result of voluntary criminal conduct, but conviction of a crime necessarily imputes some fault to the perpetrator, fault for which he should not be rewarded with a lower child support obligation than he would have otherwise."
The dissent's position was that the state child support guidelines "do not envision the assignment of blame when setting the support amount. Rather, it is generally a straightforward mathematical calculation utilizing a prescribed formula and plugging in the parents' respective incomes. Thus, with the limited exception of voluntary underemployment or unemployment motivated by an intention to escape paying support, the child support obligation is based upon the parents' income, and not fault. No one has suggested here that Father's crimes were committed in order to become incarcerated so that Father's child support obligation would be lessened. If such were the case, I would agree that income should be imputed. Absent that, imputing pre-incarceration income to Father is nothing more than an extra punishment. Punishment is not the point of a child support order."