By Michael Tarrant
Knutsen v. Cegalis, 2011 VT 128 (mem.).
Of all the joys that bringing a child into the world entails, deciding which parent should retain primary custody after a separation is surely not one of them. In this unfortunate case, Mother and Father could not agree as to who would retain primary custody of their son after separating shortly after their son’s birth, and thus turned to the court system for help.
In making these most difficult of difficult custody decisions, the Vermont legislature has charged the superior courts with determining the “best interests of the child” by analyzing (at least) nine statutory factors. Potential litigants take note: once you have bought your ticket, you hope for the best and hold on for the ride, because the SCOV has laid down that the family courts have “broad discretion” in awarding custody and in determining the best interests of a child and such decisions will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous—a very high hurdle to meet.
Here, Mother appeals the family court’s award of primary custody to Father of their five-year old son. This case has been around almost as long as the parties’ son, starting back in 2008 when the first custody trial was held. That trial ended with Mother obtaining primary custody until March 1, 2010, when primary custody would automatically transfer to Father. That case was appealed to the SCOV, and in 2009, the SCOV reversed and remanded the automatic transfer decision as “impermissibly removed from real-time determinations of the child's best interests.” The son has been alternating weeks between parents since March, 2010.
In August, 2010, after a rehearing apparently heavily influenced by the son’s impending kindergarten debut, the family court once again concluded that primary custody be awarded to Father. The court reached this decision by analyzing the requisite “best interests of the child” factors. For at least four of the factors, the court concluded that custody could easily be awarded to either parent: the son was well adjusted, and both Mother and Father were affectionate and dedicated parents; both parents were able and willing to meet their son’s developmental needs; the home environments were both positive; and there was no sign of abuse from either parent.
As to the remaining factors, the court resolved none in favor of Mother, but a few in favor of Father. Essentially, the court determined that Father was better equipped to meet certain of the son’s developmental needs, and could be relied upon to foster a better relationship with the other parent than Mother.
Mother appealed to the SCOV, arguing that the family court’s conclusions are not supported by the evidence, and that she should be awarded primary custody. At oral argument, Mother waived any contest with the family court’s findings of fact, and instead focused on its conclusions, challenging a plethora of points. Mother also complained that the family court was unfair in many of its characterizations of her, while ignoring points she felt were equally at fault with Father, yet drew no criticism.
To no end, though, as the SCOV affirms the trial court.
As noted above, the SCOV starts by reiterating its standard of review for child custody cases—the family court has broad discretion, and its decisions will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous. Granting Mother that, “[c]onceivably, any one, or all, of the court's conclusions might have been decided differently,” the SCOV nonetheless concludes that “while [M]other would rely on different evidence, interpret the evidence differently, or offer new evidence for the first time on appeal, these are not grounds for reversal.”
Additionally, family courts are given wide discretion in determining the “best interests of a child” and the SCOV will not touch such decisions “so long as the court's decision reflects reasoned, as opposed to arbitrary, judgment on the evidence presented.” Here, and unlike the automatic award of custody that resulted in reversal in 2009, the SCOV finds a well reasoned and articulated analysis of the evidence and factors. The SCOV concludes that even if this were a close case, and it were inclined to reach a different result on the same facts, it would still defer to the conclusions of the family court—a very, very high hurdle to meet indeed.
The SCOV similarly concludes that Mother’s complaint regarding unfair treatment by the trial court is without merit. Finding adequate support in the record for the court’s conclusions, the SCOV affirms on this challenge as well.
Never easy for a child to deal with feuding parents, I am rooting for Mother and Father to push through this rough start, and give their son the loving and caring upbringing he needs and deserves, devoid of any bad feelings they may feel toward each other.