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Williams v. Williams

Supreme Court of Wyoming

February 18, 2016

KELLI SUE WILLIAMS, Appellant (Plaintiff),
v.
CHARLES LESLIE WILLIAMS, Appellee (Defendant)

Editorial Note:

This opinion is subject to revision before publication in the official reporter.

Appeal from the District Court of Crook County. The Honorable Michael N. Deegan, Judge.

For Appellant: Christopher M. Wages of The Wages Group, LLC, Buffalo, Wyoming.

For Appellee: Matthew R. Sorenson and Tad T. Daly, Daly & Sorenson, LLC, Gillette, Wyoming.

Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.

OPINION

FOX, Justice.

[¶1] Kelli Sue Williams (Mother) and Charles Leslie Williams (Father) were married for nearly five years and had one child together when Mother filed for divorce in the spring of 2014. The parties each sought custody of the minor child, and requested an equitable division of the marital assets and liabilities. The district court ordered the parties to share physical custody of the child, alternating between Moorcroft (Father's residence) and Cheyenne (Mother's residence) until the child reached school-age, at which time primary physical custody was awarded to Mother. The court awarded the parties' cattle operation to Father and awarded Mother 15 percent of its value to be paid in yearly installments by Father. Mother appealed, and we affirm the district court's distribution of property, but reverse the district court's shared custody order.

ISSUES

[¶2] We restate the issues as follows:

1. Did the district court abuse its discretion when it ordered shared custody?

2. Did the district court abuse its discretion in its division of the marital assets and liabilities?

FACTS[1]

[¶3] The parties married on August 15, 2009, and had one child together, NJW, who was born in 2012. The family resided in Crook County, Wyoming--north of Moorcroft--until Mother left the marital home with the parties' daughter in the spring of 2014. She then filed for divorce, and moved for temporary custody of NJW. The district court held a temporary custody hearing on May 27, 2014. At its conclusion, the court ruled from the bench, ordering a shared custody arrangement in which physical custody of the child would alternate between the parents every two weeks. Mother moved to Cheyenne after the temporary custody hearing, and NJW was shuttled between Moorcroft and Cheyenne in accordance with the court's temporary custody order. The court bifurcated the divorce trial, hearing the custody dispute on September 3, 2014, and issues related to property division on December 19, 2014. At the conclusion of the custody hearing, the court continued the temporary custody arrangement, ordering that the parents alternate physical custody of the child every two weeks. The court awarded primary physical custody to Mother, upon NJW reaching school-age, and granted Father liberal visitation. At the hearing on division of the marital estate, the court awarded Father most of the parties' property, and required Father to compensate Mother in the form of an equalizing payment of $167,509.00 to be paid in equal installments over a period of ten years. The court found that no interest should attach to the payments unless and until Father missed a yearly installment. Mother timely filed her notice of appeal.

DISCUSSION

I. Did the district court abuse its discretion when it ordered shared custody?

[¶4] NJW was born in 2012, and soon after her birth, the parties learned that she had a hearing disability. At the time, both Mother and Father worked as teachers at Moorcroft high school. Mother took the remainder of the school year off to care for NJW. During the summer, the parties decided that Mother would reduce her hours at the school and begin working part-time to give Mother the time and opportunity to address any challenges that may arise due to NJW's hearing disability. Soon after NJW's first birthday, she received cochlear implants. While this enabled NJW to hear, she still required services, such as speech therapy, to assist with her development.

[¶5] At the start of the school term in the fall of 2012, Mother went back to teaching part-time, and Father continued as a full-time teacher. In addition to his teaching duties, Father also acted as a coach for both the junior high and high school wrestling programs. The parties also owned land and ran a ranching operation. Both before and after NJW's birth, Father spent a considerable amount of time working the ranch and growing the parties' cattle herd.

[¶6] Mother acted as the primary caregiver for NJW. She performed the day-to-day activities required to care for a child, including waking NJW in the morning, feeding her, taking her to the babysitter's house and picking her up, putting her to bed, and caring for her when she was ill. In addition, Mother scheduled and attended all of NJW's appointments, which were substantial due to NJW's hearing disability. Mother arranged and participated in NJW's speech therapy lessons, she coordinated NJW's developmental services, and she also arranged a community sign language course to ensure that NJW was able to communicate with family, friends, and neighbors. Mother became adept at sign language, and also became actively involved in the deaf community, joining the Hands and Voices board, an organization that works with parents of children with hearing disabilities.

[¶7] The majority of Father's time was spent working. Often, Father would leave the house early in the morning and return late in the evening, due to his coaching schedule, teaching obligations, and ranching duties. During wrestling season, Father was gone most weekends, and Mother testified that it was not uncommon for NJW not to see her Father for entire days at a time. Father was not responsible for scheduling any of NJW's appointments, nor was he responsible for ensuring that services related to NJW's developmental needs were being provided.

[¶8] Father testified that during the temporary custody period, he spent considerably more time with NJW. While NJW was with Father, she continued to receive speech therapy, and because the temporary arrangement was in the summer months when Father had no teaching or coaching obligations, he was able to attend most of these sessions. Father testified that while he was working on the ranch during the summer, NJW's grandmother (Father's mother) cared for NJW, and this arrangement was to continue when Father went back to teaching and coaching in the fall. Grandmother testified that during the temporary custody period, she cared for NJW beginning in the morning until about five o'clock in the evening. Grandmother also testified that she was exploring various services for NJW, including daycare and other activities. Because Father lived close to his parents and other family members, NJW was able to spend time with her extended family while with Father in Moorcroft.

[¶9] Mother obtained a teaching job in Cheyenne after her move. Because she did not begin her new teaching contract until the fall following the court's temporary custody order, Mother was able to spend her entire custody periods with NJW. Mother also enrolled NJW in the STRIDE program in Cheyenne, which provided NJW with intensive developmental services and allowed NJW to socialize with other children who had cochlear implants. Mother testified that when she began work in the fall, NJW would attend daycare/preschool during the day, but that Mother would be available to care for NJW directly after school. In addition, Mother had family support in the form of her sister and her sister's family who also reside in Cheyenne.

[¶10] Mother and Father both testified concerning the workability of a shared custody arrangement, and how NJW had adjusted during the temporary custody period. Father stated that the arrangement was working well, and requested that the court continue the shared custody schedule. Mother, however, testified that she had witnessed some behaviors in NJW related to separation anxiety due to NJW's long absences from Mother's care. Father admitted that NJW suffered from some separation anxiety when she was away from Mother, but he believed that these symptoms were lessening over time.

[¶11] The parties testified about some substantial disagreements they had during the temporary custody period. Chiefly, these centered upon developmental services for NJW. Mother testified that one of the primary reasons for her move to Cheyenne was the STRIDE program which came highly recommended by NJW's providers. Father initially objected to NJW's enrollment in the program, and the parties were unable to come to an agreement until Father toured the STRIDE center. A similar disagreement occurred over NJW's enrollment in the Scottish Rites program which provides additional speech therapy, and which was again recommended by NJW's providers. Father objected to her enrollment in the program, and at the time of trial, the parties had not reached a resolution on this matter.

[¶12] At the close of evidence, the district court ruled from the bench, granting joint legal custody to the parties and ordering a continuation of the shared custody arrangement. The court awarded primary custody to Mother upon NJW attaining schoolage. Mother appealed and we reverse and remand.

[¶13] We review custody determinations for an abuse of discretion. Durfee v. Durfee, 2009 WY 7, ¶ 6, 199 P.3d 1087, 1089 (Wyo. 2009).

Custody, visitation, child support . . . are all committed to the sound discretion of the district court. Scherer v. Scherer, 931 P.2d 251, 253-54 (Wyo. 1997); Triggs v. Triggs, 920 P.2d 653, 657 (Wyo. 1996); Basolo v. Basolo, 907 P.2d 348, 352 (Wyo. 1995). It has been our consistent principle that in custody matters, the welfare and needs of the children are to be given paramount consideration. Scherer, 931 P.2d at 254; Rowan v. Rowan, 786 P.2d 886, 890 (Wyo. 1990); see also Gurney v. Gurney, 899 P.2d 52, 55 (Wyo. 1995) and Fink v. Fink, 685 P.2d 34, 36 (Wyo. 1984). The determination of the best interests of the child is a question for the trier of fact. " We do not overturn the decision of the trial court unless we are persuaded of an abuse of discretion or the presence of a violation of some legal principle." Fink, 685 P.2d at 36.
A court does not abuse its discretion unless it acts in a manner which exceeds the bounds of reason under the circumstances. Pinther v. Pinther, 888 P.2d 1250, 1252 (Wyo. 1995) (quoting Dowdy v. Dowdy, 864 P.2d 439, 440 (Wyo. 1993)). . . . Findings of fact not supported by the evidence, contrary to the evidence, or against the great weight of the evidence cannot be sustained. Jones v. Jones, 858 P.2d 289, 291 (Wyo. 1993). Similarly, an abuse of discretion is present " 'when a material factor deserving significant weight is ignored.'" Triggs, 920 P.2d at 657 (quoting Vanasse v. Ramsay, 847 P.2d 993, 996 (Wyo. 1993)).

Pahl v. Pahl, 2004 WY 40, ¶ 6, 87 P.3d 1250, 1252 (Wyo. 2004) (quoting Reavis v. Reavis, 955 P.2d 428, 431 (Wyo. 1998)).

[¶14] Mother contends that the district court abused its discretion when it failed to give adequate weight to Father's misconduct during the marriage, and when it erroneously determined that Father shared in the role as primary caregiver for NJW. Mother also argues that the court's decision to order shared custody was an abuse of discretion. We defer to the district court's determination regarding Father's transgressions and his ability to parent NJW. However, we find that the district court erroneously found that Father's status as primary breadwinner for the family conferred primary ...


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