Change Child Custody in Arizona When Parent Relocates to Another State
The Arizona Court of Appeals in a memorandum decision in the case of In re the marriage of Kasper and Ausema had to address a trial court’s decision to deny a mother a relocation of a child while changing primary physical custody of the children to their father based upon Mother’s relocation.
Mother appeals from the trial court’s ruling denying her petition to relocate the residence of the parties’ children from California to Nevada, denying her request to modify legal decision-making authority and parenting time, denying her request for attorney fees, granting Father’s request to be primary residential parent, removing Kasper’s final legal decision-making authority, and granting Ausema a greater share of parenting time.
She claims that the court: (1) erred by placing on her the burden to prove relocation would be in the best interest of the children, (2) abused its discretion in making its findings and conclusions as to their best interest, (3) abused its discretion by finding that relocation to Nevada would not be in the children’s best interest, (4) erred by modifying legal decision-making authority at all, (5) abused its discretion by modifying the parenting-time order as it did, (6) abused its discretion by failing to award her attorney fees, (7) abused its discretion by using unstated findings from its earlier, temporary order to support its ruling on relocation, (8) erred by failing to cite to the correct, existing legal decision-making order, and (9) erred by referring to a period of five months as a “few months.” Finding no error and no abuse of discretion, we affirm.
In the parties’ April 2011 decree of dissolution, Mother was awarded “sole legal and physical custody” of the parties’ children, and Father was awarded supervised parenting time. In February 2013, the trial court, on the parties’ stipulation, modified the parenting-time order by adopting a residential, vacation, and holiday parenting-time plan that allowed Father unsupervised parenting time; Mother remained the primary residential parent.
In April 2015, after a contested, evidentiary hearing, the court awarded the parents joint legal decision-making authority, leaving Mother as the primary residential parent, giving her final legal decision-making authority, and modifying the summer parenting time schedule, but otherwise leaving the regular parenting-time order unchanged.
In January 2016, Mother petitioned under A.R.S. § 25-408 to relocate with the children from Arizona to California. Father opposed the petition and filed his own motion to modify legal decision-making, parenting time, and child support. Following an evidentiary hearing in February 2016, the court granted Mother’s petition, allowing her to relocate with the children to California.
In May 2016, claiming that Mother intended to move with the children from California to Nevada, Father filed a petition to prevent the relocation. Thereafter, Mother filed her “Request to Relocate the [M]inor Children,” seeking to move the children from California to Nevada. At about the time she filed her request, Mother had purchased a home in Nevada and enrolled the children in school. Father also filed a motion for temporary orders. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court entered temporary orders for the children to live with Father in Arizona and set an evidentiary hearing on the petition to relocate.
Following a December 30, 2016, evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied Mother’s petition on March 27, 2017, finding that she had not carried her burden of proving that it was in the children’s best interest to move to Nevada.
The court affirmed the order of joint legal decision-making authority, ordered that neither parent would have final legal decision-making authority, and, under A.R.S. §§ 25-403 and 25-408, because it was in the children’s best interest, ordered that the children live primarily with Father in Arizona.
Mother timely appeals and seeks a reversal to allow her to relocate the children to Nevada and seeks an award of attorney fees. We have jurisdiction under A.R.S. § 12-2101(A)(1). Application of A.R.S. § 25-408.
For the first time on appeal, Mother argues that the trial court erred by assigning her the burden of proving that the relocation was in the children’s best interest under A.R.S. § 25-408. She argues that § 25-408, Arizona’s relocation statute, does not apply because she was residing in California at the time she sought to relocate to Nevada.
Thus, she argues, the statute’s placement of the burden of proof on her as the relocating parent was a legal error. At no time in the trial court did Mother raise this argument; indeed, her petition to relocate was brought under § 25-408, and she argued below that the § 25-408 factors favored the relocation.
Legal issues and arguments must be presented to the trial court and cannot be argued for the first time on appeal. See Chang v. Siu, 234 Ariz. 442, (App. 2014) (“An appellate court normally will not address arguments not raised in the superior court prior to the appeal.”). Because this argument and legal issue were not presented to the trial court, we will not consider it.
Kasper argues that the best-interest factors supported her relocation and that the trial court abused its discretion in finding otherwise. We review a relocation decision for an abuse of discretion. Hurd v. Hurd, 223 Ariz. 48, (App. 2009). “An abuse of discretion exists when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to upholding the trial court’s decision, is devoid of competent evidence to support the decision.” Id. quoting State ex rel. Dep’t of Econ. Sec. v. Burton, 205 Ariz. 27 (App. 2003).
Trial courts are given broad discretion to determine what is in a child’s best interest because they are in the best position to make that determination. Porter v. Porter, 21 Ariz. App. 300, 302 (1974). We defer to a trial court’s discretionary findings, assessment of witness credibility, and the weighing of evidence so long as the trial court “remains within the bounds of that discretion.” Gutierrez v. Fox, 242 Ariz. 259, (App. 2017).
Court’s Ruling on Changing Child Custody When a Parent Relocates To Another State
Here, the trial court stated its findings and rationale for each of the relevant factors under A.R.S. § 25-408(I), which included the best interest factors under A.R.S. § 25-403(A). Under the § 25-403 best-interest factors, the court found equally for each parent. In considering the remaining best-interest factors under § 25-408(I), the court found that the factors weighed against relocation to Nevada. On the whole, the court found that Mother had not met her burden of proving that relocating the children again, this time from California to Nevada, was in their best interest.
Mother argues the trial court’s conclusions were “against the weight of the evidence.” However, she is essentially asking this court to reweigh the evidence and disregard any assessment by the trial court of the witnesses’ credibility, which we will not do. Gutierrez v. Gutierrez, 193 Ariz. 343 (App. 1998).
If substantial evidence supports the trial court’s findings and conclusions, they will not be disturbed on appeal. See Pridgeon v. Superior Court, 134 Ariz. 177, 179 (1982) (“On review, the trial court’s decision will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion, i.e., a clear absence of evidence to support its actions.”).
Substantial evidence supports the trial court’s findings and conclusions that relocation was not in the children’s best interest, and, because it does, we find no abuse of discretion.
Mother claims that the order removing her final legal decision-making authority was an error because neither party expressly moved for such a modification under Rule 91, Ariz. R. Fam. Law P., and because there was no express finding of a material change in circumstances or a showing that modification was in the children’s best interest.
We review a trial court’s legal decision-making order for an abuse of discretion. Nold v. Nold, 232 Ariz. 270, (App. 2013). For such a modification, “the court must first determine whether there has been a change in circumstances materially affecting the child’s welfare,” and then, “whether a change in custody would be in the child’s best interests.” Christopher K. v. Markaa S., 233 Ariz. 297, (App. 2013) (internal citations omitted).
Whether or not a Rule 91 petition is filed with the relocation petition, it is self-evident that a petition by a parent seeking to move the residence of the children from one state to another may require a change in either parenting time or legal decision-making authority. Cf. Murray v. Murray, 239 Ariz. 174, (App. 2016) (finding a material change in circumstances because the mother’s plan to relocate may have implicated legal decision-making).
We can reasonably infer that the trial court found a material change in the circumstances affecting the children. See Johnson v. Elson, 192 Ariz. 486, (App. 1998) (appellate court may infer findings of fact and conclusions of law to sustain trial court if reasonably supported by evidence); see also Canty v. Canty, 178 Ariz. 443, 448-49 (1994) (finding sufficient evidence of changed circumstances though finding absent from minute entry).
The court left unchanged the overall joint legal decision-making order, and the court’s best-interest findings support the previous relocation to California was supposed to be permanent, but within several months she sought to relocate the children again. In fact, she purchased a home and enrolled the children in school in Nevada without seeking the father’s consent or leave of the court.
Unlike the move to California, the move to Nevada would be a lateral move for Mother, in that she had failed to demonstrate how the move would benefit the children financially or socially. Father, on the other hand, has remained in the same home for three years, in the state the children were raised.
The modification of removing the final legal decision-making authority. See Murray, 239 Ariz. 174, citing Owen v. Blackhawk, 206 Ariz. 418 (App. 2003) (when relocation implicates legal decision making, the trial court must make specific findings under § 25-403 to support its determination).
By removing final legal decision-making authority from Mother, the court merely ordered that the court will resolve any legal decision-making issues if the parties cannot agree. The court did not abuse its discretion in making changes following Mother’s relocation.
Mother also argues that the trial court abused its discretion in setting the parenting schedule which gave her less parenting time. A court’s award of parenting time will not be disturbed absent a clear abuse of discretion. Pridgeon, 134 Ariz. at 179. A reviewing court will not reweigh the evidence. See Gutierrez, 242 Ariz. 259.
A trial court abuses its discretion in awarding parenting time when its decision is not supported by the evidence. See Pridgeon, 134 Ariz. at 179. “Shared legal decision making does not necessarily mean equal parenting time.” A.R.S. § 25- 403.02(E).
The trial court’s parenting time order is supported by the court’s finding that relocation was not in the children’s best interest, and because the school-aged children would primarily reside with Father, with Mother living in another state, Mother’s parenting time would, if not necessarily, at least justifiably, be reduced. Thus, this court cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion.
Finally, Mother makes a series of other arguments that the trial court erred and abused its discretion when it (1) failed to award her attorney fees, (2) failed to consider its February 19, 2016, order as controlling, (3) referred to the Nevada move as her second proposed move “in the last few months,” and (4) “bolster[ed]” its order with unstated findings from its earlier, temporary order.
As to attorney fees, Kasper cites to no legal authority that supports her allegation that the trial court abused its discretion, we, therefore, consider the argument waived. See Cullum v. Cullum, 215 Ariz. 352, n.5 (App. 2007) (“We will not consider arguments posited without authority.”).
As to the remaining claimed errors, 403.01(A), A.R.S., provides: “In awarding legal decision-making, the court may order sole legal decision-making or joint legal decision-making.” There is no statutory reference to “final legal decision-making authority.” Mother similarly fails to develop her arguments in any meaningful way, and we will likewise not address them.
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the trial court. Both sides have requested an award of attorney fees and costs on appeal under Rule 21, Ariz. R. Civ. App. P., and A.R.S. § 25-324. In our discretion, we deny Mother’s request because she has not prevailed on appeal and Father’s request because Mother’s appeal was not frivolous or unreasonable.
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Chris Hildebrand wrote this article to ensure everyone has access to information about family law in Arizona. Chris is a divorce and family law attorney at Hildebrand Law, PC. He has over 24 years of Arizona family law experience and has received multiple awards, including US News and World Report “Top Arizona Divorce Attorneys”, Phoenix Magazine “Top Divorce Law Firms”, and Arizona Foothills Magazine “Best of the Valley” award. He believes the policies and procedures he uses to get his clients through a divorce should all be guided by the principles of honesty, integrity, and, quite frankly, actually caring about what his clients are going through in a divorce or family law case. In short, his practice is defined by the success of his clients. He also manages all of the other attorneys at his firm to make sure the outcomes in their clients’ cases are successful as well.