Relocation and Joint Custody

June 11, 2018 § Leave a comment

Julia Bennett and her husband, Andre, were divorced in 2011 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Their PSA provided that the parties would share joint physical and legal custody, with Julia to have the children with her most of the time.

When Julia decided to relocate from Rankin County to St. Louis, Andre filed to modify, seeking sole custody, and to keep the children in Rankin. Julia counterclaimed for sole custody, and to modify the visitation based on her new residence in Missouri.

At hearing, Andre testified that he was actively involved in the lives of his children, and that he had recently purchased a home suitable for them to stay with him. Julia testified that her father and fiancé lived in St. Louis, and that she had a job awaiting her there. She said, too, that she had been in the process of enrolling the children in school in Missouri until the chancellor had entered an emergency order that the children be enrolled in Rankin County schools. One of the children, Madeline, age 14, testified that her preference was to stay with her mother, with whom she was close. She conceded that she was close to her father also, and that she would abide by the court’s order either way.

The family master, serving as a guardian ad litem (GAL) found that no material change had occurred, because Julia had not moved; however, a move would create a material change adverse to the children, and, if so, Andre should have custody. The GAL’s report incorporated an Albright analysis, which included Madeline’s preference. The chancellor agreed with and adopted the GAL’s recommendations and entered a judgment providing that if Julia relocated to Missouri Andre would have custody, Julia would have liberal visitation, and she would pay child support.

Julia appealed, challenging only the determination not to honor Madeline’s preference. In Bennett v. Bennett, decided April 10, 2018, the COA affirmed unanimously. Judge Fair wrote for the court:

¶12. Julia only challenges one Albright factor – the preference of the minor child. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-11-65(1)(a) (Rev. 2013) provides that a child’s preference may be taken into account in determining child custody:

[I]f the court shall find that both parties are fit and proper persons to have custody of the children, and that either party is able to adequately provide for the care and maintenance of the children, the chancellor may consider the preference of a child of twelve (12) years of age or older as to the parent with whom the child would prefer to live in determining what would be in the best interest and welfare of the child. The chancellor shall place on the record the reason or reasons for which the award of custody was made and explain in detail why the wishes of any child were or were not honored.

“[T]he chancellor is not bound by the election of a minor child.” Floyd v. Floyd, 949 So. 2d 26, 30 (¶12) (Miss. 2007). However, if a chancellor declines to follow a child’s election, he must place the reasons in the record. Id.

¶13. In his Albright analysis, the family master noted the following regarding the child’s preference:

The preference of the child at the age sufficient to express a preference: [Madeline] is fourteen (14). She is over the age of twelve (12). She is able to make a preference. She did make that preference for mother. This factor would favor mother in this regard. [] The stability of the home environment, I believe, favors [Andre] Bennett primarily because he’s been here with the children and with mom up until recently. That is a stable environment, one in which the children are familiar with. You know, [Julia] Bennett, the testimony was you’re going to live with your dad. You don’t really have a place to live. You are not married yet. [There are] a lot of unknowns, a lot of question marks. I am not faulting you for it. I’m just saying that’s just the way it is. All things considered, the best evidence before the [c]ourt on this half is that the material change of circumstances was adverse to the children favors a modification of custody to – to dad.

¶14. We find that the family master appropriately explained his reasons for awarding custody to Andre instead of Julia in the event that Julia relocates, even though Madeline expressed a preference to reside with her mother. It was within the chancellor’s discretion to adopt the family master’s recommendation. Accordingly, we affirm.

Some ruminations:

  • Anticipatory modifications have not been favored. See, McMurry v. Sadler, 846 So. 2d 244 (Miss. App. 2004), in which the court affirmed the chancellor’s decision to dismiss pleadings that alleged that a material change and adverse effect would result if an event happened. In most cases, this approach would be wise because it would be speculative to find material change and adverse effect would occur until they do.
  • Here, it was practical for the chancellor to address the impending move and its effect on joint custody.
  • Relocation almost always plays havoc with joint custody, leaving everyone — the judge included — dissatisfied with the result. To compound matters, the party who does’t wind up with what he or she wanted always feels cheated because joint custody is what they negotiated for, or what was ordered, in the first place.
  • This case highlights that the court is never required to follow a child’s preference. If the preference is not followed, however, the court must state the reasons why. Here, by adopting the GAL’s report and findings on preference, the chancellor made a record as to why he did not follow the child’s preference.

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