Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Sheetz v. Sheetz

Court of Appeals of Indiana

November 23, 2016

Benjamin Sheetz, Appellant-Respondent,
v.
Ronnie Sheetz, Appellee-Petitioner.

         Appeal 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.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] 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.

         [¶2] 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.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶3] 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.

         [¶4] 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.

         [¶5] 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.

         [¶6] 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.

         [¶7] 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 stipulation:

[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 said child.

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.

         [¶8] 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.

         [¶9] Husband now appeals.

         Discussion and Decision

         [¶10] 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 biological child.

         [¶11] 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.

         [¶12] 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.

         [¶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.

         [¶14] 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.

         [¶15] 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.

         [¶16] 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.

         [¶17] 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 present.").[1]

         [¶18] 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.").

         [¶19] 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).[2]To avoid injustice, Husband is equitably estopped from rebutting the presumption that he is G.B.S.'s biological father.

         [¶20] 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, ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.