Distance does not always mean statutory minimum parent time. Court could accommodate with additional weekends, summer time and holidays.

February 14, 2019

Nebeker v. Orton, 2019 UT App 23 (Filed February 14, 2019).

In this case, the father and mother lived approximately 100 miles apart, and the trial court found that if the parties lived closer, the court would have granted joint physical custody, but because of the distance, awarded the statutory minimum instead to the father. The father appealed. The court of appeals agreed that some accommodation above the statutory minimum schedule could have been made: "Mother and Father agree that a 100-mile commute to school is unworkable. But this distance does not prevent other possible accommodations that could be accomplished without undue disruption to Child’s school schedule, such as awarding Father additional weekend time or more parent-time over the summer vacation, fall break, spring break, and holidays."

This is the full explanation by the court:

¶34 Father argues that the district court erred in awarding him minimum parent-time, asserting that he showed by a preponderance of the evidence that he should be awarded parent-time in excess of the minimum guidelines in Utah Code sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5. We agree that the district court’s award of only minimum parent-time was not supported by its findings.

¶35 “[T]he parent-time schedule as provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5 shall be presumed to be in the best interests of the child . . . .” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).6 But these parent-time schedules are subject to adjustment. See id. The schedules represent the minimum parent time to which the noncustodial parent is entitled unless one of the parents can establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that more or less time should be awarded based upon a number of criteria. See id. Criteria relevant to the case at hand include, amongst a lengthy list, (1) the distance between the residences of the custodial and noncustodial parents, (2) shared interests between the child and the noncustodial parent, (3) involvement of the noncustodial parent in the child’s community activities, and (4) “any other criteria the court determines relevant to the best interests of the child.” Id. § 30-3-34(2)(b), (h), (i), (o). Regardless of whether the court awards minimum parent-time or awards more or less than the statutory minimum, the statute requires the court to “enter the reasons underlying its order.” Id. § 30-3-34(3).

¶36 Without specifically referencing the statutory criteria, Father contends that the following evidence supported awarding him parent-time in excess of the statutory minimum: (1) Mother’s testimony that Child should have equal time with both parents; (2) neither distance nor finances made “frequent and meaningful” visitation prohibitive; (3) travel between the parents’ residences was not harmful to Child; (4) Child shared a strong bond with Father and Father’s wife and other children; and (5) Child thrived by following the routine in Father’s household.

¶37 “It has long been the law in this state that conclusions of law must be predicated upon and find support in the findings of fact and that the judgment or decree must follow the conclusions of law. When there is variance, the judgment must be corrected to conform with the findings of fact.” Gillmor v. Wright, 850 P.2d 431, 436 (Utah 1993). Such correction is appropriate in this case.

¶38 In the very sentence stating that it found Child’s best interests were served by awarding primary physical custody to Mother, the district court also stated that it “would likely have found a joint physical custody arrangement to be in [Child’s] best interests” if the parties lived reasonably close to each other. The district court reasonably concluded that the distance separating the parties’ residences justified something less than equal parent-time, especially once Child starts attending school. After all, Mother and Father agree that a 100-mile commute to school is unworkable. But this distance does not prevent other possible accommodations that could be accomplished without undue disruption to Child’s school schedule, such as awarding Father additional weekend time or more parent-time over the summer vacation, fall break, spring break, and holidays.

¶39 The district court made no attempt to explain, as required by the statute, its reason for awarding minimum parent-time. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(3). Given the district court’s findings that (1) Child was “well adjusted and doing very well pursuant” to the informal custody arrangement, (2) “[b]oth parents deeply love and are committed to [Child],” (3) “both parents are extremely motivated to be awarded physical custody of [Child],” (4) both parties offer financial and emotional support to Child, (5) “both parties spend appropriate time with” Child, (6) both parents are “fit” and “very bonded” with Child, and (7) the parties agree that Child needs a “relationship” and “substantial time with” the other parent, we would have expected that the court attempt to increase Father’s parent-time over the statutory minimum. Indeed, we are hard-pressed to understand the process by which the court awarded Father minimum parent-time when—in its own words—Father should be “allowed to exercise liberal and meaningful parent time” and where Mother argued at trial that both parents should have equal time with Child. In reality, the record reflects that Mother was arguing that she should have enhanced parent-time, likely believing that Father would prevail as the primary caretaker. Both through the presentation of evidence and in argument, Mother supported the notion that in this case enhanced parent-time should be awarded to the non-primary caregiver. Accordingly, awarding Father the statutory minimum parent-time while simultaneously concluding that the evidence supports awarding Father “liberal and meaningful” parent-time presents a conclusion that does not follow from the findings stated.

¶40 On this single issue we determine that the district court’s conclusion is not supported by its findings, and therefore the court exceeded its discretion when it minimized Father’s parent-time. Thus, we reverse on this issue because of inadequate findings and remand for additional findings and, if necessary, a reevaluation of what additional parent-time should be awarded.

Nebeker v. Orton, 2019 UT App 23 (Filed February 14, 2019).

To read entire case, Click HERE.

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