Officially released September 8, 2020.
In Short: (1) a trial court may rely on an implicit finding of substantial change in circumstances to modify custody, (2) substantial change is not a bright-line rule but has a focus on whether the child’s well-being has been affected in a meaningful way.
The parties were never married. They had one child in common who was eleven years old at time of trial and who had primarily resided with Mother since birth. Judgment was entered by agreement of the parties providing joint legal custody and primary residence to Mother in 2008.
The parties had engaged in substantial litigation since the date of Judgment, most recently entering into an agreement in 2016 that provided certain access to Father and permitted final decision making to mother for various aspects of joint legal custody. In January of 2018, Father filed the instant motion alleging that Mother had demonstrated she was incapable of fostering a healthy relationship between Father and the child and had continuously interfered with his access time.
The trial court held a four-day hearing, after which it entered orders transferring primary residence to Father, ordering all of Mother’s access supervised, ordering final decision-making to Father, ordering Mother to submit to a psychiatric evaluation, and ordering that Mother obtain leave to file future motions. Mother appealed.
On Appeal, Mother claimed that the trial court improperly modified custody without first finding that a material change in circumstances had occurred since the prior order. The Appellate Court applied the abuse of discretion standard to determining whether a substantial change in circumstances had occurred and noted the lack of bright-line rule for such a determination, with a focus on whether a change has affected the child’s well-being in a meaningful way. It further noted that factual determinations are subject to the clearly erroneous standard. The Appellate Court held that although the trial court did not explicitly find a substantial change in circumstances, an implicit finding of such change will satisfy the requirement.
Mother further challenged the trial court’s determination that modification was in the best interests of the child. A comprehensive custody evaluation was conducted which determined that Mother’s untreated psychological problems are the primary issue in the case and threaten the long-term psychological well-being of the child. The report conditioned a recommendation that Mother retain primary residence on requirements that Mother obtain regular mental health treatment and that she cease her efforts to disrupt visits with Father. The Appellate Court noted that the trial court gave substantial weight to the recommendations but held that it was not improper to agree with the findings but deviate from the recommendations. There was no abuse of discretion.
Mother claimed that her due process rights were violated by unduly limiting her case in chief. This claim was not preserved at trial, and Mother sought to claim it for appeal under the Golding rule. The Appellate Court held that the trial court provided Mother the time she requested and that she failed to allege any action by the court that implicated her fundamental rights.
The judgment was affirmed.