A Dubois County mother who wanted to move with her child to New Mexico has lost her appeal of the denial of her relocation petition.
Sarah Hayes gave birth to a child, B.M., in August 2016, but did not tell the child’s father, Zachary Mehringer. In September of that year, Mehringer petitioned the Dubois Circuit Court to establish paternity, custody, child support and parenting time, though he did not know when he filed the petition that the child had been born. When he did learn of the birth, Hayes refused to give Mehringer any information about their child.
The trial court in January 2017 granted sole physical custody of B.M. to Hayes, with Mehringer having joint legal custody and parenting time. He also agreed to pay $100 per week in child support.
Then in May 2018, Hayes petitioned the trial court to move to Texas with B.M., explaining that she had been offered a job as a registered dietician, her only job offer at that time. The trial court granted that petition, giving Mehringer parenting time in accordance with the state guidelines.
However, Hayes never relocated to Texas due to a professional licensing issue, and her job offer fell through. Meanwhile, she began dating a man she met online, Taylor Bisenius. They married in 2019.
Bisenius was under a military contract in New Mexico, so Hayes petitioned the trial court to relocate to Clovis, New Mexico. A custody battle between the parents then ensued, and a guardian ad litem expressed concerns about Hayes’ “reluctance to work with [Father] on small, sensible schedule adjustments.”
A hearing on Hayes’ relocation petition revealed that B.M. had a close relationship with his father and Tina, Mehringer’s wife. The child was also close to Tina’s older sons as well as her extended family. Also at issue was B.M.’s speech therapy and a concern that relocating would cause him to suffer from separation anxiety.
For her part, Hayes indicated that she would not allow Mehringer to have additional parenting time if she moved to New Mexico and that she would not be willing to transport B.M. to meet his father at a halfway point in Oklahoma.
The trial court ultimately found it was in B.M.’s best interests to stay in Dubois County, denying Hayes’ petition to relocate. The court also denied her petition to dissolve joint legal custody, as well as Mehringer’s request to modify custody. Finally, Mehringer’s parenting time was increased and his child support obligation decreased.
On appeal, Hayes argued the trial court clearly erred in denying her relocation petition, but the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed.
“Here, Mother first argues that the trial court erred in determining that her proposed relocation with B.M. was not made in good faith,” Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote in a Friday opinion. “However, our review of the trial court’s order reveals that this is not an accurate assessment of the trial court’s reasoning.
“The record reveals that the trial court merely expressed concern that Mother had not pursued the Texas employment offer and had instead pursued a long-distance relationship,” Pyle continued. “Despite that concern, the trial court concluded that Mother’s ‘request on its face [was] for a legitimate reason’” because Mother desired to be with her husband. (App. Vol. 2 at 117). We agree with the trial court that Mother proposed an objectively legitimate reason for relocating and further note that ‘[e]xcept where the stated reasons for relocation are solely pretextual (or illegitimate on their face), a rather low bar in application, we prefer for the resolution of relocation disputes to turn on a judicial determination of the best interests of the child.’”
The trial court did not err in finding relocation was not in B.M.’s best interests, Pyle wrote, pointing to the distance from Clovis, New Mexico, to Dubois County, the effect on Mehringer’s parenting time and relationship with the child and Hayes’ history of trying to “thwart” Mehringer’s contact with the child.
“Our review of the evidence further reveals that B.M. has bonded relationships with Father, Tina, paternal grandparents, step-grandparents, and stepbrothers, all of whom live in Indiana. B.M. would have no extended family in New Mexico. In addition, B.M.’s speech therapist, who B.M. sees twice a week, is in Indiana,” the COA concluded.
“This evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that relocation was not in B.M.’s best interests. As a result, the trial court’s denial of Mother’s petition to relocate B.M. is not clearly erroneous, and we affirm the trial court’s judgment.”
The case is In Re: The Paternity of B.R.H.; Sarah B. Hayes v. Zachary T. Mehringer, 20A-JP-1935.