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JR v. TLW

Supreme Court of Wyoming

April 19, 2016

JR, Appellant (Respondent),
v.
TLW, Appellee (Petitioner)

          Appeal from the District Court of Teton County. The Honorable Timothy C. Day, Judge.

         For Appellant: Melissa M. Owens of Owens Law Office, PC, Jackson, WY and Heather Noble, Jackson, WY.

         For Appellee: PLeah K. Corrigan of Western Wyoming Law, LLC, Jackson, WY.

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

          OPINION

Page 571

          HILL, Justice.

          [¶1] Appellant (Mother) challenges a district court's order awarding Appellee (Father) primary custody of the parties' children. We will affirm the district court.

         ISSUE

          [¶2] Mother presents one issue, with three subsections, for our review:

1. The district court abused its discretion in awarding custody to Father.
a. The district court erred in failing to consider -- but apparently overruling the minor children's preference -- particularly as the district court did not have sufficient basis for assessing how much weight to give that preference.
b. The district court had an insufficient basis for deviating from the recommendation

Page 572

of the Guardian Ad Litem.
c. The district court had an insufficient basis for granting residential custody to Father after the minor children had been living in Mother's temporary custody in Bozeman for eighteen months.

         FACTS

          [¶3] Mother and Father were never married but they dated and were living together when their two children were born in 2004 and 2006. Their relationship ended in 2008, but for the most part they shared custody of their children.

          [¶4] This matter began in September of 2013, when Father filed a petition to establish paternity, custody, visitation, and support, after he learned that Mother planned to move from Jackson, Wyoming to Bozeman, Montana with the children. A temporary custody hearing was held on November 1, 2013, after which the court awarded the parties joint legal custody with temporary residential custody being awarded to Mother. Accordingly, Mother and the two children moved to Bozeman in December of 2013, and Father remained in Jackson.

          [¶5] Almost one year later, in October of 2014, the court held a bench trial to determine custody. The children did not testify and were not interviewed. The court heard testimony from both parties. Testimony also included that from a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). Ultimately, the GAL recommended that Mother have primary custody. Despite that recommendation, the court awarded Father primary residential custody, subject to Mother's visitation.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

          [¶6] This Court reviews district court decisions affecting child custody and visitation for an abuse of discretion. Demers v. Nicks, 2016 WY 13, 366 P.3d 977 (Wyo. 2016). About custody matters we have further said:

It has been our consistent principle that in custody matters, the welfare and needs of the children are to be given paramount consideration. 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.
A court does not abuse its discretion unless it acts in a manner which exceeds the bounds of reason under the circumstances. Our review entails evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence to support the district court's decision, and we afford the prevailing party every favorable inference while omitting any consideration of evidence presented by the unsuccessful party. Findings of fact not supported by the evidence, contrary to the evidence, or against the great weight of the evidence cannot be sustained. Similarly, an abuse of discretion is present when a material factor deserving significant weight is ignored.

IC v. DW, 2015 WY 135, ¶ 7, 360 P.3d 999, 1001 (Wyo. 2015) (quoting Stevens v. Stevens, 2014 WY 23, ¶ 8, 318 P.3d 802, 805-06 (Wyo. 2014)).

         DISCUSSION

          [¶7] In Mother's only issue she argues that the district court abused its discretion when it awarded Father primary residential custody. Mother more specifically argues that the court did not consider the children's preferences, that the court did not have a sufficient basis for its deviation from the GAL's recommendation, and that the court lacked a basis for granting custody to Father after the children had lived with Mother in Bozeman for 18 months.

          [¶8] The district court detailed its reasoning for granting Father primary custody in a 25-page order. Part of its reasoning reads as follows:

39. The testimony in this case, particularly Mother's own testimony, causes the Court serious concerns about the destructive effect of Mother's attitudes towards Father and his parenting. Her communication of those attitudes to the children, however true ...

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