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Walker v. Knight

Court of Appeals of Indiana

January 30, 2019

Robert Walker and Patricia Walker, Appellants-Petitioners,
v.
Megan (Buckner) Knight, Appellee-Respondent Robert Walker and Patricia Walker, Appellants-Petitioners,
v.
Ashley Erin Carpenter, Appellee-Respondent

          Attorneys for Appellants Robert E. Shive Paul R. Sadler Emswiller, Williams, Noland & Clarke, LLC Indianapolis, Indiana

          Attorney for Appellees Charles P. Rice Murphy Rice, LLP South Bend, Indiana

          Appeal from the Hamilton Superior Court The Honorable Steven R. Nation, Judge Trial Court Cause Nos.29D01-1703-MI-2800, 29D01-1703-MI-2801.

          BAKER, JUDGE.

         [¶1] Robert Walker and Patricia Walker (the Walkers) appeal the trial court's orders granting summary judgment in favor of Megan Knight and Ashley Carpenter (the Mothers) on the Walkers' petitions for grandparent visitation, arguing that: (1) the Mothers should be equitably estopped from arguing that the Walkers lack standing; and (2) the Walkers preserved their rights to grandparent visitation by timely filing the petitions. Finding that the Walkers preserved their right to a hearing, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         Facts

         [¶2] The Walkers had one son, Braden Walker, who is now deceased. Braden had a child, C.W., with Knight. Braden had another child, J.W., with Carpenter. Both C.W. and J.W. were born out of wedlock, but Braden established legal paternity for each child during his lifetime. The Mothers have each gotten married, and their respective husbands each filed a petition for step-parent adoption after Braden's death.[1]

         [¶3] On March 22, 2017, the Walkers filed petitions for grandparent visitation for both C.W. and J.W. under two separate causes. Under the Grandparents Visitation Act (GVA), [2] grandparents may seek continuing visitation after the child's parent is deceased. When the Walkers filed their petitions for visitation, the petitions for step-parent adoption of C.W. and J.W. were pending in the trial court. The Walkers and the Mothers stipulated in a written agreement that the trial court would address the issue of grandparent visitation only after the adoptions were finalized. The Mothers were also given an extension of time after the adoptions were finalized to respond to the Walkers' visitation requests. The trial court finalized J.W.'s adoption in July 2017 and C.W.'s adoption in August 2017.

         [¶4] On January 26, 2018, Carpenter filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that because the adoption of J.W. had been finalized, the Walkers no longer had standing to seek grandparent visitation. Carpenter also filed a motion to strike the portions of the Walkers' petitions for grandparent visitation and affidavits in which the Walkers refer to themselves as the "grandparents" of J.W. Appellants' App. Vol. II p. 45. Similarly, on April 23, 2018, Knight filed a motion for summary judgment, making the same argument as to C.W. On July 5, 2018, the trial court granted Knight's motion for summary judgment, and on July 7, 2018, the trial court granted Carpenter's motions for summary judgment and to strike.

         [¶5] In both orders, the trial court took judicial notice of the adoption decrees proffered by the Mothers, verifying that the adoptions of C.W. and J.W. had been finalized by their respective step-fathers. Furthermore, the trial court concluded that once C.W. and J.W.'s adoptions had been finalized, the Walkers no longer fit the definition of "grandparent."[3] Braden's death and the step-fathers' acts of adopting C.W. and J.W. severed the legal, familial relationship between the Walkers and the two children.

         [¶6] The trial court concluded that the Walkers did not do enough by simply filing their petitions before the adoptions were finalized. Specifically regarding J.W.'s adoption, the trial court stated, in pertinent part:

The Walkers have never had any "Visitation rights" that could have "survive[d]" the adoption under Section 9 of the GVA. Because "no right to visitation had already been given by a court," the Walkers "have no visitation rights for section 31-17-5-9 to protect. . . ."
For this reason alone, the Walkers' Petition for Grandparent Visitation fails as a matter of law.
[T]he GVA was amended in part to read that a petition for grandparent visitation "must be filed prior to the date a decree of adoption is entered." Here, the petition for grandparent visitation was filed in March 2017, before the adoption decree was entered in July 2017. However, although a pre-adoption petition is a necessary condition for grandparent visitation, it is not the only condition. As discussed above, after a step-parent adoption, a court may enforce such visitation only if the petitioner (1) has "Visitation rights" that "survive the adoption of the child" under Indiana Code § 31-17-5-9 and (2) is still a "grandparent" as defined by Indiana Code § 31-9-2-77, and neither of these Indiana Code provisions was changed by the 2017 ...

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