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Martin v. Hart

Supreme Court of Wyoming

October 31, 2018

HEATHER MARTIN, Appellant (Respondent),
CHRISTOPHER HART, Appellee (Petitioner).

          Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable Catherine E. Wilking, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Keith R. Nachbar, Keith R. Nachbar, P.C., Casper, Wyoming.

          Representing Appellee: Stacy E. Casper, Casper Law Office, LLC, Casper, Wyoming.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and BURKE [*] , FOX, KAUTZ, and BOOMGAARDEN, JJ.

          FOX, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Heather Martin (Mother) and Christopher Hart (Father) had a brief romantic relationship, which ended before their child was born. Father filed a Petition to Establish Paternity, Custody, Visitation, and Support. The district court awarded primary physical custody to Mother, with a visitation schedule that requires extensive travel between Mother's residence in Glenrock, Wyoming, and Father's residence in Mesa, Arizona, until the child reaches school-age, at which time the parties must agree on a new visitation schedule or seek modification from the district court. The order also requires Father to pay child support below the presumptive statutory amount. Mother appeals the district court's visitation schedule and its child support determination. We reverse and remand.


         [¶2] The parties raise three issues on appeal, which we rephrase:

1. Did Mother appeal an order over which this Court has jurisdiction?
2. Did the district court abuse its discretion when it imposed a graduated visitation plan requiring extensive travel that does not specify how visitation will work when the child starts kindergarten?
3. Did the district court abuse its discretion in establishing Father's child support obligation?


         [¶3] Father and Mother met in Casper, Wyoming, during the summer of 2015, and began a romantic relationship. That fall, Mother and Father broke up, and Mother learned she was pregnant. Initially Father and Mother communicated about the pregnancy, but in early 2016, Mother changed her phone number and blocked Father on social media "so that he could not reach [her] anymore[.]" Meanwhile, Father moved to Mesa, Arizona, to accept a job. In March, Father filed a Petition to Establish Paternity, Custody, Visitation, and Support in district court.

         [¶4] Mother gave birth to a son, LH, in June 2016. Father learned of the birth two days later from his mother, who had seen pictures of the baby on Facebook. Father travelled from Arizona to Wyoming to visit LH in July. He visited again in September, but Mother "kicked [him] out of the house" because he was taking photos after she had asked him not to. In November, Father and Mother entered into a Stipulated Temporary Agreement Establishing Paternity, Child Custody, Visitation and Support that established Father as LH's biological father, awarded Mother primary physical custody, established monthly visitation for Father, and required Father to pay child support of $646.78 per month during the pendency of the case. However, due to scheduling conflicts between Mother and Father and the expense of travelling from Arizona to Wyoming, Father missed monthly visitation in December 2016[1] and in January, March, May, June, and July 2017. When he did visit, Father did not spend time alone with LH and never had him overnight.

         [¶5] Mother quit working before LH's birth and did not seek new employment. While she was pregnant with LH, she and her older daughter lived with her mother and then a friend, without paying rent. She and her children then lived with her grandmother, again without paying rent. In 2017, she and her children moved in with her boyfriend, who pays for rent and utilities and bought her a car. Mother receives government assistance via food stamps and Medicaid.

         [¶6] At the hearing on Father's petition, Father testified that he lives in Mesa, Arizona, with his fiancée and their infant son, where he works at an engineering firm. He also testified that he secured a spot for LH at a daycare center in Arizona, took parenting classes, and has a good relationship with LH, but has been prevented from spending more time with him because it was difficult to set up visitation with Mother and because he could not afford the approximately $1, 500 cost of each visit. Father's mother testified that he is a good father to LH and his other son. His fiancée testified similarly, but added that visitation with LH "never goes smoothly" because "[e]very time he tries to get visitation it's never what he asks for."

         [¶7] Father also testified that he could not pay both the cost of his monthly child support and travel costs to visit LH, but that Mother had told him not to worry about child support. Father requested that child support be reduced from the statutorily presumed amount to $300 per month so he could afford transportation costs to visit LH, and expenses for his other son. Father also asked for primary physical custody of LH or, failing that, either three-month rotations between his residence and Mother's or divided school year and summer visitation with alternating holidays.

         [¶8] Witnesses for Mother testified that she is a good parent to both of her children and has a strong support system in the Casper area. Mother testified that she facilitates a relationship between LH and Father's parents and that, even though she and Father do not always communicate well, she wants Father and LH to develop a father-son bond. However, she was not yet comfortable with overnight visitation because Father and LH had not spent enough time together. Mother also requested primary physical custody with a graduated visitation plan for Father, with LH to begin travelling to Arizona overnight at age four.

         [¶9] Applying the factors in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 20-2-201(a), the district court found:

(i). The quality of the relationship each child has with each parent. The Court finds that the parties are equal in this regard. The testimony is that both of them have positive relationships with the child.
(ii). The ability of each parent to provide adequate care for the child throughout each period of responsibility, including arranging for the child's care by others as needed. There was testimony that [Mother] is a stay-at-home mom, and [Father] has arranged for childcare for the minor. There was also testimony that [Mother] is completely dependent on her boyfriend for all means of support except for the public assistance that she receives while living with him. So the Court finds that to be a neutral factor between the parties.
(iii). Regarding the relative competency and fitness of each parent, the Court finds that the parties are equal. They both appear competent, fit and able to care for the child.
(iv). The parents' willingness to accept all the responsibilities, including a willingness to accept care at specified times and to relinquish care to the other parent at specified times. The Court finds that [Mother] has unreasonably restricted visitation for [Father], has unreasonably restricted contact between [Father] and the ...

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