In this child custody dispute, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to modify custody in favor of the father and prevent the mother from moving out of state with the child. The Court of Appeals had reversed the trial court’s decision. The Supreme Court, relying on the deference afforded to trial courts in family law matters, concluded the evidence submitted at the custody hearing supported the trial court’s decision.
The Supreme Court first offered a succinct overview of Indiana law regarding relocation.
When a parent files a notice of intent to relocate, the nonrelocating parent may object by moving to modify custody or to prevent the child’s relocation. Ind. Code § 31-17-2.2-1(b); 31-17-2.2-5(a). When this objection is made, “[t]he relocating individual has the burden of proof that the proposed relocation is made in good faith and for a legitimate reason.” I.C. § 31-17-2.2-5(c). If the relocating parent shows good faith and a legitimate reason, “the burden shifts to the nonrelocating parent to show that the proposed relocation is not in the best interest of the child.” Id. § 31-17-2.2-5(d).
A court must weigh the following factors in considering a proposed relocation, as set forth in Indiana Code section 31-17-2.2-1(b):
- The distance involved in the proposed change of residence.
- The hardship and expense involved for the nonrelocating individual to exercise parenting time or grandparent visitation.
- The feasibility of preserving the relationship between the nonrelocating individual and the child through suitable parenting time and grandparent visitation arrangements, including consideration of the financial circumstances of the parties.
- Whether there is an established pattern of conduct by the relocating individual, including actions by the relocating individual to either promote or thwart a nonrelocating individual’s contact with the child.
- The reasons provided by the:
- (A) relocating individual for seeking relocation; and
- (B) nonrelocating parent for opposing the relocation of the child.
- Other factors affecting the best interest of the child.
“Other factors affecting the best interest of the child” include, among other things, the child’s age and sex; the parents’ wishes; the child’s wishes, with the wishes of children fourteen years or older being given more weight; the child’s relationship with parents, siblings, and any other person affecting the child’s best interests; and the child’s adjustment to home, school, and the community. I.C. § 31-17-2-8.
The trial court then turned to the issue of whether relocation of Child was in Child’s best interest. It ultimately found that relocation would not be in Child’s best interests, citing the following reasons: the distance involved in the move was significant; Father was very involved in Child’s daily activities and education; both maternal and paternal grandparents, along with other extended family, were involved in Child’s daily life in Indiana; and relocation would cause “significant deterioration” in Child’s relationships with Father and Child’s extended family.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, but the Supreme Court, noting the broad discretion afforded to trial courts in family law matters, affirmed the trial court and reversed the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court repeatedly stressed the standard of review. The Court’s conclusion states:
Trial courts are afforded a great deal of deference in family law matters, including relocation and custody disputes. The trial court, in this case, made sufficient and supportable findings to sustain its decision to prevent relocation and modify custody. Applying the highly deferential standard of review, we affirm the trial court.
This decision is important to family law and appellate practitioners for two reasons. First, it provides an overview of relocation law. Second, it emphasizes the discretion afforded to trial courts. Any practitioner defending a trial court’s ruling will do well to rely heavily on this case; parties seeking to overturn a trial court’s decision must find ways to distinguish this case or at least be prepared to explain how a trial court abused its “broad” and “significant” discretion.