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Pohl v. Pohl

Supreme Court of Indiana

September 9, 2014

BARBARA J. POHL, Appellant (Respondent),
MICHAEL G. POHL, Appellee (Petitioner)

Appeal from the Hendricks Superior Court, No. 32D04-1209-DR-593. The Honorable Mark A. Smith, Judge.

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 32A04-1304-DR-163.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: Deborah M. Agard, Daniel W. Kiehl, Law Office of Deborah M. Agard, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Robert C. Rothkopf, Thomas L. Landwerlen, Landwerlen & Rothkopf, L.L.P., Indianapolis, Indiana.

Rush, Chief Justice. Dickson, Rucker, David, and Massa, JJ., concur.


Page 1007

Rush, Chief Justice.

Nearly twenty years ago, our decision in Voigt v. Voigt reserved the question of whether a court may modify a maintenance obligation that originates in a settlement agreement, but rests on grounds such as incapacity that would have permitted an identical award even in the absence of an agreement. 670 N.E.2d 1271, 1280 n.13 (Ind. 1996). That question poses a choice between a rock and a hard place: As Voigt recognized, permitting modification may unjustly upend a delicate balance

Page 1008

the parties struck in negotiations with the expectation of finality. Id. at 1278 & n.11. Yet prohibiting it may cause undue hardship to a party who faces unforeseen circumstances.

We conclude that prohibiting modification will cause harsh results somewhat less frequently than the alternative, making it the better of those two unsatisfactory choices. We therefore hold that any maintenance provision in a settlement agreement, regardless of its grounds, is modifiable only if the agreement so provides. But this agreement does so provide--echoing the language of the incapacity maintenance statute by making the agreed maintenance amount subject to " further order of the court" in the alternative to " agreement of the parties." We therefore reverse the trial court and remand with instructions to apply the incapacity maintenance statute's " substantial and continuing change in circumstances" standard to the evidence presented at the modification hearing.

Facts and Procedural History

Barbara and Michael Pohl were married in 1991, and their one child, M.P., was born in 1995. For most of their marriage, Barbara was the breadwinner--Michael suffered a back injury in 1996, and the resulting Social Security Disability (SSDI) payments are still his sole individual income.

When the Pohls divorced in March 2009, they entered into a " Custody, Support, and Property Settlement Agreement" (" Agreement" ) that was approved and incorporated into their dissolution decree. But in what the parties call an oversight on their part, this original agreement did not provide for spousal maintenance.

The Pohls then filed an Addendum to the Agreement in May 2009, calling for Barbara to pay Michael monthly maintenance of $4,000 beginning in June 2013:

[T]he parties herein stipulate and agree that the Wife shall pay to the Husband the sum of Four Thousand Dollars ($4,000.00) per month as post-dissolution spousal maintenance, commencing the 5th day of June, 2013, and continuing on the 5th day of each successive month thereafter until further order of the court or agreement of the parties.

Michael's attorney drafted the Addendum, while Barbara chose not to retain counsel, despite her six-figure income. Barbara said she agreed to this delayed maintenance because she wanted to be " fair" given the disparity in their incomes and because she wanted to " keep the peace for our son's benefit." But she admits the June 2013 date was mistakenly tied to M.P.'s high school graduation rather than his emancipation date in December 2014.

In October 2012, months before the first maintenance payment came due, Barbara filed a petition to modify this maintenance obligation from $4,000 to $1,000 monthly, among other requests not relevant here. In support, she cited Michael's changed circumstances. His yearly income from SSDI payments increased from around $5,000 in 2009 to at least $22,000 in 2012. Michael and M.P. had also moved into a home with Michael's fiancé e--and while Michael paid for the majority of monthly household expenses and for the fiancé e's car payments, his fiancé e earned well over $100,000 per year and paid the mortgage. But after earning a pharmacy degree in 2010, Barbara had likewise increased her yearly income: from $127,000 when the divorce was finalized in 2009 to about $182,000 in 2012 (and nearly $230,000 the year before).

In March 2013, the trial court held a hearing on the modification (and several other post-dissolution matters not challenged ...

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