Change in Parenting Time Due to Children Changing Schools
Parents have fundamental and protected rights in the care and custody of their children. This includes the right to parenting time. Once a parenting plan is in place, the court must consider a range of factors before amending it. This includes the impact the modification will have on the parent/child relationship. In Baker v. Meyer, 346 P.3d 998 (App. 2015), the Arizona Court of Appeals reviewed the factors to be considered.
Facts and Procedure
Mrs. Baker and Mr. Meyer, married in 1995. They had three children: J., born in 1998, N., born in 2000, and B., born in 2004. They divorced in 2008 and the decree of dissolution of marriage incorporated the couple’s parenting agreement.
Under the decree and parenting agreement, Mrs. Baker and Mr. Meyer had joint legal and physical custody. The agreement provided that the children would be with each parent for seven consecutive days on an alternating basis. It set out school pick-up and return schedules. It prohibited either parent from committing a child to an activity which infringed upon the other parent’s parenting time.
In 2014, husband filed a motion requesting that two of the children be allowed to enroll in boarding school in Northern California. Specifically, J. would return for his junior year of high school to the Cate School, and N. would enroll at Cate for his freshman year.
Wife objected to N. enrolling at Cate. She wanted him to go to a local school in Tucson, so she could maintain her parenting time with him. N. told the court that he wished to go to Cate. The trial court did not view the issue as one of parenting time, but one of school placement.
The court reviewed the two proposed schools and found them about the same. It concluded it was in N.’s best interest to attend Cate, since he wanted to. It also found this would relieve his stress from traveling between his parents’ homes.
Parenting Rights Protected
Parents have fundamental rights in the custody and control of their children. These are protected rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Arizona’s law also recognizes these rights.
Arizona public policy and statutes make clear that a child’s best interest includes substantial and continuing parenting time with both parents.
Trial Court’s Focus on Schooling
The trial court in this case viewed the issue presented as one of school placement only. Therefore, it applied the best interest factors set forth in Jordan v. Rea, 212 P.3d 919, 926 (App.2009). In that case, a father objected to his children continuing their education at a private religious school.
The appellate court directed the trial court to review the child’s best interests. The relevant factors included: 1) the wishes of the child’s parent or parents; 2) the wishes of the child; 3) the interaction and interrelationship of the child with persons at the school; 4) the child’s adjustment to any present school placement.
The Court noted that it formulated these factors in the context of a child’s placement at a local school. In the Jordan case, neither of the parents alleged a change in parenting time. That was not the situation in the present case.
Reduction in Parenting Time
In this case, Mrs. Baker objected to N.’s attendance at Cate because of lost parenting time. The plan would reduce her yearly time with him by at least 121 days. That is sixty-six percent of the time she had been allocated in the divorce decree.
The trial court did not address that impact. Instead, it applied the Jordan factors. It focused on the qualities of the schools and the wishes of the child.
When parenting time is at issue, the trial court must make specific findings on the record about all relevant factors and the reasons for which the decision is in the best interests of the child. These include: 1. The past, present and potential future relationship between the parent and the child. 2. The interaction and interrelationship of the child with the child’s parent or parents, the child’s siblings and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest. 3. The child’s adjustment to home, school and community. 4. If the child is of suitable age and maturity, the wishes of the child as to legal decision-making and parenting time. 5. The mental and physical health of all individuals involved.
The trial court’s decision failed to consider the proper factors and make appropriate findings about parenting time. This was an error of law.
The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to address the appropriate factors and make the mandated findings.