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Justices uphold modification of physical custody to father

February 8, 2011

A majority of Indiana Supreme Court justices granted transfer today to Mariea L. Best v. Russell C. Best, No. 06S05-1102-CV-73, and affirmed a special judge’s decision to grant a father physical custody of his daughter M.B. They held the trial court made the necessary findings to support the modification.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker upheld the trial court’s modification of physical custody of the daughter to her father, Russell Best. Russell and Mariea Best divorced in 2004 and had several disputes regarding custody, parenting time, and support since that time. Russell petitioned for a custody modification in 2008 after asserting Mariea didn’t comply with a 2007 court-approved agreement. Mariea responded with her own modification petition and Russell filed an emergency petition for contempt claiming Mariea denied him parenting time with their son. She also filed an emergency petition for temporary custody of their son. After a hearing, Mariea was found in contempt and ordered to return the son to Russell.

After a hearing by Special Judge Rebecca McClure, the court granted Russell’s petition to modify custody and awarded him sole legal and physical custody of their two children, denied Mariea’s petition for modification and contempt, and found her to be in contempt for not paying attorney fees.

The Indiana Court of Appeals rejected Mariea’s claims that the trial court erred in refusing her request to order a custody evaluation and that the trial court didn’t properly modify legal custody of M.B. The appellate court reversed the finding of contempt but affirmed the trial court’s decision to reduce to judgment the unpaid attorney fee obligation. The majority of justices summarily affirmed these decisions by the Court of Appeals and only addressed Mariea’s challenge to the modification of her daughter’s physical custody.

The majority found Judge McClure made the necessary findings that there had been a substantial change in one or more of the statutory factors in Indiana Code Section 31-17-2-21 and that the modification of physical custody was in M.B.’s best interests.

They also declined to reweigh the evidence. Mariea argued that various items of evidence supported her position.

“In summary, sufficient findings were made to support the trial court's decision to modify the physical custody of M.B. And because the mother does not establish a complete absence of evidence supporting the trial court's denial of the mother's request for full physical custody of M.B., we decline to reverse the denial. We find no error in the trial court's decision to place M.B.'s primary physical custody with the father, subject to its specifications of parenting time, which are not challenged,” wrote Justice Dickson.

Justice Frank Sullivan dissented and would deny transfer, believing the decision of the Court of Appeals was correct. Justice Steven David did not participate.

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