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Justices: COA overreached on reversing trial court custody ruling

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The Court of Appeals got it wrong when it reversed a trial court custody modification in favor of a child’s father, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in one of the first opinions joined by Justice Loretta Rush.

“We reiterate that in family law matters, trial courts are afforded considerable deference. Here, the trial court’s judgment was well supported by the findings, and neither the judgment nor the findings were clearly erroneous,” Justice Steven David wrote in a 5-0 decision in D.C. v. J.A.C., 32S04-1206-DR-349. “Applying the highly deferential standard of review, we affirm the trial court.”

The case involved mother D.C. and father J.A.C. After the couple divorced in 2008, they had an agreement for shared custody of a son born in 2003. In July 2010, the mother filed a motion to relocate, and while the motion was pending, she moved to Tennessee, where she had secured a better-paying job in the medical profession.

The trial court ultimately granted the father’s motion to modify custody and prevent child’s relocation, awarding him primary custody and allowing the mother visitation during school breaks and when she was in central Indiana. D.C. moved back to Indiana and appealed.

The trial court held that it was in the child’s best interests to remain in the state because of the father’s significant involvement in his daily activities and education, as well as the involvement of the child’s extended family.

A panel of the Court of Appeals overturned the trial court’s best-interest findings based in part on the mother’s improved employment and salary increase. But the justices said the appellate court erred by not showing proper deference to the trial court’s best-interest findings.

“The trial court conducted the evidentiary hearing over two days. It heard the testimony of ten witnesses, including the [guardian ad litem], who testified that he believed relocation was not in the best interest of child,” David wrote.

“Contrary to the Court of Appeals’ assertion, the trial court here did not base its conclusion that relocation was not in the best interest of child solely on the fact that father would not have as much contact with child. We agree with the Court of Appeals that there is no blanket rule that a relocation that deprives a parent of time with a child is always against the best interest of the child. But a trial court can, and in fact must, take into account the child’s relationship with parents,” according to the ruling.

“Although an appellate court in this case may be able to reach a different conclusion from that of the trial court, doing so would involve reweighing the evidence, which is not permitted.”   

 

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