from the Adams Circuit Court The Honorable Chad E. Kukelhan,
Judge Trial Court Cause No. 01C01-1405-DR-44
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Eric D. Orr Berne, Indiana.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE Joseph M. Johnson, II Decatur, Indiana.
Vaidik, Chief Judge.
While Benjamin Sheetz ("Husband") and Ronnie Sheetz
("Wife") were married and Husband was in prison,
Wife got pregnant by another man. Nevertheless, Husband
agreed to raise the child as his own and did so for twelve
years. He also told Wife not to contact the biological
father, not to seek support from him, and not to institute
paternity proceedings. Wife later filed for divorce, and at
the final hearing, the parties entered into evidence a
stipulation that although the child was born during the
marriage, Husband is not the child's biological father.
The trial court nonetheless ordered Husband to pay support
for the child, and Husband now appeals.
Under these circumstances where Husband told Wife when she
was pregnant that he would raise the child as his own (and he
did so for twelve years), Husband told Wife not to tell the
biological father, not to seek support from him, and not to
file a paternity action, and Wife relied on Husband's
representations in not establishing paternity in the
biological father, we find that Husband is equitably estopped
from rebutting the presumption that he is the child's
biological father. We therefore affirm the trial court.
and Procedural History
Husband and Wife married in April 2002. Shortly thereafter,
Husband was sent to prison. While he was in prison, Wife
became pregnant by another man. When Wife was about twelve
weeks pregnant, she told Husband that she was pregnant by
another man. At first, Husband was upset. Wife offered to
file for divorce, but Husband said no. They eventually agreed
to tell everyone that she became pregnant during a conjugal
visit, that she would not tell the biological father that she
was pregnant with his child, and that they would raise the
baby "as [their] own child." Tr. p. 72, 142.
Shortly after Husband's release from prison, Wife gave
birth to G.B.S. on May 17, 2003. Husband was present at the
birth and signed the birth certificate as "father."
Id. at 78. Husband did not want Wife to contact the
biological father, to seek support from him, or to institute
paternity proceedings. Id. at 77, 143. Husband and
Wife then had two more children.
For the next twelve years, Husband held G.B.S. out to the
world and to G.B.S. as his child. Of their three children,
Husband had the "closest relationship" with G.B.S.
Id. at 76. When discussing the possibility of
divorce in 2010, Wife asked Husband if they should tell
G.B.S. that Husband was not his biological father, and
Husband said "whether [they] were married or divorced he
was [G.B.S.]'s dad[, ] period." Id. at 147.
Wife filed for divorce in May 2014 and claimed that the three
children were children of the marriage. Appellant's App.
p. 26. Husband did not object to Wife's claim that G.B.S.
was a child of the marriage. The trial court then entered
provisional orders for Husband to pay child support for all
three children. Again, Husband did not object to paying child
support for G.B.S.
The week before the September 2015 final hearing, Wife, upon
the advice of G.B.S.'s counselor, told G.B.S. that
Husband was not his biological father. At the final hearing,
Husband and Wife admitted into evidence the following
[Husband and Wife] stipulate and agree that [Husband] is not
the natural father of [G.B.S.], who was born during the
marriage of the parties. [Wife], by so stipulating, is not
waiving the right to seek child support for the benefit of
Id. at 52. Wife testified that she knows the name of
G.B.S.'s biological father but that it had been "a
long time" since she had had any contact with him and
that she did not know where he lives. Tr. p. 108.
In dissolving the parties' marriage, the trial court
entered findings and conclusions. Specifically, the trial
court found that Husband induced Wife "to forego
establishment of paternity and child support for [G.B.S.]
from his biological father, and promised that he would
provide support for him." Appellant's App. p. 15.
Also, the court found that Wife "firmly believed that
both she and Husband would be responsible for [G.B.S.]."
Id. Accordingly, the court concluded that Husband
was "estopped from denying his obligations to
[G.B.S.]" because "[t]o hold otherwise would be
unjust" and "an injustice to a young man who was
led to believe that [Husband] [was] his father when he is
not." Id. (quotation omitted). The court
therefore ordered Husband to pay child support for G.B.S. In
addition, the court awarded custody of the three children to
Wife. While the parties were separated, the court had issued
a no-contact order that prohibited Husband from having
contact with Wife and the three children. The court therefore
deferred the issue of Husband's parenting time of the
three children "until such time that the No Contact
Order is terminated." Id. at 21.
Husband now appeals.
Husband contends that the trial court erred in ordering him
to pay child support for G.B.S. because even though G.B.S.
was born during his marriage to Wife, G.B.S. is not his
The trial court entered findings and conclusions in this case
sua sponte. In such a case, the specific findings control
only with respect to issues they cover, and a
general-judgment standard applies to issues outside the
findings. In re Marriage of Sutton, 16 N.E.3d 481,
484-85 (Ind.Ct.App. 2014). The trial court's findings or
judgment will be set aside only if they are clearly
erroneous. Id. at 485. A finding is clearly
erroneous only if there are no facts or inferences drawn
therefrom to support it. Id.
A dissolution court must determine whether a child is a child
of the marriage for purposes of custody, support, and
parenting time. Russell v. Russell, 682 N.E.2d 513,
517 (Ind. 1997); see also Ind. Code art. 31-16 &
31-17. "Child" means "a child . . . of both
parties to the marriage" and includes "[c]hildren
born out of wedlock to the parties" and "[c]hildren
born or adopted during the marriage of the parties."
Ind. Code § 31-9-2-13.
For some years, different panels of this Court disagreed as
to whom the legislature intended to include as a child of a
marriage. Compare R.D.S. v. S.L.S., 402 N.E.2d 30
(Ind.Ct.App. 1980), with Russell v. Russell, 666
N.E.2d 943 (Ind.Ct.App. 1996), trans. granted. Our
Supreme Court, siding with R.D.S., held that the
legislature intended that children born out of wedlock as
well as children born or adopted during the marriage are
children of the marriage "as long as both parties are
the natural parents (or adopted the child)."
Russell, 682 N.E.2d at 517.
In a dissolution action, a man is presumed to be a
child's biological father if the man and the child's
biological mother are married to each other and the child is
born during the marriage. Ind. Code § 31-14-7-1. This
presumption can be rebutted by "direct, clear, and
convincing evidence." Myers v. Myers, 13 N.E.3d
478, 482 (Ind.Ct.App. 2014) (quotation omitted). A
stipulation between the parties, by itself, is not enough to
rebut this presumption. See In re Infant R., 922
N.E.2d 59, 62 (Ind.Ct.App. 2010), trans. denied. The
types of evidence used to rebut the marriage presumption for
paternity include that the husband was impotent or sterile,
the husband was absent during the entire time that the child
must have been conceived, and DNA testing. Myers, 13
N.E.3d at 482-83.
Here, the parties stipulated that Husband is not the
biological father of G.B.S., as Wife became pregnant by
another man after Husband was sent to prison. In addition to
the parties' stipulation, Husband sent letters to Wife
while in prison demonstrating that he was incarcerated when
she became pregnant. This stipulation and evidence establish
that Husband is not G.B.S.'s biological father. But this
is not the end of the story.
Before G.B.S. was born, Husband told Wife that he would raise
G.B.S. as his own child; Husband then signed G.B.S.'s
birth certificate and raised G.B.S. as his own child for
twelve years-G.B.S.'s whole life. Of Husband and
Wife's three children, Husband was closest with G.B.S.
Husband also told Wife not to contact G.B.S.'s biological
father and not to institute paternity proceedings. To date,
no paternity proceedings have been initiated. Under these
facts, Husband is estopped from rebutting the presumption
that he is G.B.S.'s biological father.
Equitable estoppel is a judicial remedy by which a party may
be precluded by his own acts or omissions from asserting a
right to which he otherwise would have been entitled or from
pleading or proving an otherwise important fact. 28 Am. Jur.
2d Estoppel & Waiver § 27 (2011). The
doctrine of equitable estoppel presumes that some legal
requirement has not been met. See Schoettmer v.
Wright, 992 N.E.2d 702, 709-10 (Ind. 2013) (finding a
genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant
was estopped from asserting the plaintiff's
non-compliance with the Indiana Tort Claims Act's 180-day
notice requirement as a defense based on the defendant's
insurer's representations to the plaintiff that it could
not settle his claim until his treatments were complete);
see also Nolan v. Clarksville Police Dep't, 60
N.E.3d 1128, 1132-33 (Ind.Ct.App. 2016) (finding a genuine
issue of material fact as to whether the defendant was
estopped from asserting the plaintiff's non-compliance
with the Indiana Tort Claims Act's 180-day notice
requirement as a defense based on the defendant's
representations to the plaintiff that formal notice would not
be necessary), trans. pending; 22A Stephen E. Arthur
& Jerome L. Withered, Indiana Practice, Civil Trial
Practice, § 39.9 (2d ed. 2007) ("The doctrine
of equitable estoppel is a judicially-created rule which will
relieve a plaintiff of the requirements of a statute of
limitations in cases where constructive fraud is
The purpose of equitable estoppel is to preclude a person
from asserting a right when he has led another to form the
reasonable belief that the right would not be asserted, and
loss or prejudice to the other would result if the right were
asserted. 28 Am. Jur. 2d at § 28. The doctrine of
estoppel springs from equitable principles, and it is
designed to aid in the administration of justice where,
without its aid, injustice might result. Levin v.
Levin, 645 N.E.2d 601, 604 (Ind. 1994). This doctrine is
not limited to circumstances involving an actual or false
representation or concealment of an existing material fact.
Id. Rather, equitable estoppel is a remedy available
if one party through his course of conduct knowingly misleads
or induces another party to believe and act upon his conduct
in good faith without knowledge of the facts. Id.;
see also 28 Am. Jur. 2d at § 27
("Equitable estoppel serves to forbid one to speak
against his . . . own act[s], representations, or commitments
communicated to another who reasonably relies upon them to .
. . her injury.").
Here, Husband induced Wife to believe that he would raise and
support G.B.S. as his own child (and Husband did so for
twelve years). Wife reasonably believed that Husband would
not challenge his paternity of G.B.S. and then relied upon
Husband's promise in not filing a paternity action
against G.B.S.'s biological father. Indeed, Wife's
opportunity to establish paternity in G.B.S.'s biological
father has long passed. See Ind. Code §
31-14-5-3(b) (providing that "[t]he mother" must
file a paternity action "not later than two (2) years
after the child is born"; although there are exceptions,
none of them likely apply here).To avoid injustice, Husband
is equitably estopped from rebutting the presumption that he
is G.B.S.'s biological father.
Although our Supreme Court has not applied the doctrine of
equitable estoppel to a case with the same facts that are
before us, it has applied the doctrine to prevent a husband
from denying his obligations to his non-biological child. In
Levin, husband, who was sterile, and wife decided to
use artificial insemination in order to have a child. The
procedure was successful, and wife became pregnant and gave
birth. Husband and wife were listed as parents on the birth
certificate. For ten years, husband supported the child and
held him out as his own. The couple then divorced, and the
divorce decree included the child as a child of the marriage
and required husband to pay child support. Five years later,