Court Failed to Apply Proper Legal Standard in Custody Dispute


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Case: Espinoza v. Espinoza

Court: Michigan Court of Appeals ( Unpublished Opinion )

Issues:

Custody; Modification of the parties’ parenting-time arrangement; Pierron v. Pierron; Lieberman v. Orr; Corporan v. Henton; The Child Custody Act; MCL 722.27(1)(c); Proper cause or a change of circumstances; Vodvarka v. Grasmeyer; Shade v. Wright; Established custodial environment; Kessler v. Kessler

Summary:

The court held that the trial court committed clear legal error in its choice and application of the legal framework under which it analyzed the defendant-father’s motion. It was required to determine whether an established custodial environment existed, and to apply the Vodvarka framework to determine whether the conditions surrounding custody had changed sufficiently to warrant revisiting the question of the children’s best interests. Thus, the court vacated the trial court’s order modifying the parties’ parenting-time arrangement in their judgment of divorce, and remanded. The plaintiff-mother contended that “the trial court erred by concluding that it was not required to determine whether proper cause or change of circumstances warranted reconsideration of the applicable best-interest factors before amending” the parenting-time schedule in a way that effectively changed the children’s physical custody. The court agreed. “Although the trial court characterized its ruling as a ‘continuation’ or ‘completion’ of the divorce trial and a nominal modification of parenting time, its order affected the physical custody of the” children and thus, further proceedings were required. The “judgment of divorce awarded plaintiff 12 overnights per 14-day period during the school year, with the parties to alternate weeks during summer break.” Thus, she clearly had primary physical custody, despite the trial court’s “characterization of the custody arrangement as ‘joint.’” When the trial court modified parenting time, “it changed the arrangement to week-on, week-off for the entire year.” While it “framed its ruling as a continuation of the divorce trial, it had already entered an order for parenting time in the judgment of divorce, which the parties had followed for the five months leading up to the hearing. Its new order drastically changed that parenting time, effectively changing” primary physical custody. But it did “not follow the procedural framework for determining whether a change in custody was appropriate and in the children’s best interests.” Regardless of how the trial court framed the hearing, it clearly affected the children’s custody.

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