Denial of Visitation and Modification of Custody

July 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

The chancellor found Shanna Hayes in contempt for denying her ex-husband, Jeremy Hayes, visitation with their daughter. The judge also found that the denial was a material change that had an adverse effect on the child, and he modified custody, awarding it to Jeremy. Shanna appealed, arguing among other grounds that the chancellor erred in modifying custody.

In the case of Hayes v. Hayes, the COA affirmed on May 7, 2019. Judge Westbrooks wrote the opinion for the court:

¶36. Shanna asserts that the trial court’s court [sic] modification of custody was against the overwhelming weight of the evidence and insufficient to support a finding that there was a material change in circumstances adversely affecting K.H., warranting custody modification.

¶37. Shanna relies on Ash v. Ash, 622 So. 2d 1264 (Miss. 1993), in support of her argument. In Ash, the Mississippi Supreme court held that “a mother’s continual refusal to allow a father visitation did not constitute a material change of circumstances justifying a change in custody.” Id. at 1266. The Court found that “[t]he better rule would be for a chancellor to enforce contempt orders through incarceration, when necessary, to insure compliance with custody provisions rather than resorting to a change of custody.” Id.; see also Blevins v. Bardwell, 784 So. 2d 166, 179 (¶49) (Miss. 2001). “The ‘totality of the circumstances’ must be considered.” Ash, 622 So. 2d at 1266.

¶38. But in Ash, the supreme court determined that the chancery court found, by clear and convincing evidence, “that the mother’s interference with the father’s visitation ha[d] been a material change of circumstances that c[ould not] be corrected by contempt; that it [wa]s and d[id] adversely affect the child and that it [wa]s in the child’s best interest that he live with his father.” Ash, 622 So. 2d at 1267. Essentially, the supreme court upheld the custody modification.

¶39. Further, the Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “[p]arental behavior that poses a clear danger to [a] child’s mental or emotional health can justify a custody change.” McDonald v. McDonald, 39 So. 3d 868, 880 (¶37) (Miss. 2010) (citing Morrow v. Morrow, 591 So. 2d 829, 833 (Miss. 1991)). Furthermore, “[i]n determining whether a material change of circumstances has occurred, a chancellor should look at the overall circumstances in which a child lives.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶40. Here, the trial court found by clear and convincing evidence that Shanna exhibited an alarming pattern of denying Jeremy’s visitation of K.H. without just cause. The trial court noted that Shanna had also filed multiple misdemeanor criminal charges against Jeremy, filed a request for a domestic-violence order, and filed two felony charges against Jeremy. The GAL, after conducting a thorough Albright analysis, found that there had been a material change in circumstances in Shanna’s home that adversely affected K.H. The GAL noted the inappropriate and disturbing photos that Shanna sent of K.H., claiming that she had been abused. The GAL also mentioned that Shanna initiated several DHS claims against Jeremy alleging that he sexually assaulted K.H. These claims, however, were later proven to be unsubstantiated. As a result, the GAL recommended that physical custody be modified to Jeremy, noting that Shanna should enjoy standard visitation with K.H. and the parties continue to share joint legal custody. It appears that the trial court considered the totality of the circumstances affecting K.H. since Shanna and Jeremy’s divorce in 2015. The trial court ultimately found the following:

There has been a material change in the circumstances which adversely affects the minor child, [K.H.] Shanna has made multiple false accusations that [K.H.] has been sexually abused by Jeremy, causing [K.H.] to undergo multiple unnecessary physical examinations, Shanna has wil[l]fully refused Jeremy visitation with [K.H.] and has done everything she could do to alienate [K.H.] from Jeremy. It is [in] the best interest of [K.H.] that Jeremy be given her primary physical custody with Shanna to have this Court’s standard visitation rights.

¶41. After review of the record, we cannot say that the trial court’s decision was manifestly wrong in finding Shanna in criminal and civil contempt. We also do not find error in the trial court’s decision to award Jeremy attorney’s fees. Accordingly, we find that there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law and affirm the custody modification.

Ash is the go-to case when arguing that interference with visitation should result in a change of custody. But remember that you still have to show an adverse effect and best interest, and that contempt alone will not correct the problem.

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