In a recent case before the Indiana Supreme Court, the justices said that the Court of Appeals overreached its authority in reversing a trial court custody ruling. The case involved two parents who had shared custody of their 7 year old son. The mother filed a motion to relocate and before the trial court heard the motion, she moved from Indiana to Tennessee where she had secured a better-paying job in the medical profession. The trial court denied her motion to relocate and ordered the child be returned to Indiana. Around the same time, the father filed a motion to modify custody and prevent the child’s relocation. The court appointed a guardian ad litem (GAL) for the child and several months later, a hearing was held. The court heard testimony from ten witnesses. The GAL testified that he did not believe that the relocation was in the best interest of the child. The court also heard testimony from the mother, father, grandparents and various other individuals.
The trial court granted the father’s motion to modify custody and prevent the child’s relocation and ordered that the parents would retain joint custody with the father having physical custody. The mother would be granted parenting time during school breaks and on any other occasions during which she may be visiting central Indiana. The mother appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling. The case then went to the Indiana Supreme Court.
The Indiana Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals had overreached in reversing the trial court’s ruling. The justices said the appellate court erred by not showing proper deference to the trial court’s best-interest finding. The standard of review at the appellate level is not to re-weigh the evidence or decide the issues afresh, but rather to review the ruling to determine if some clear error was made. In this case, the appellate court reviewed the ruling of the lower court and found that the trial court’s best-interest determination was clearly erroneous. In doing so, the appellate court focused on several of the trial court’s findings in such a way that it resulted in a reweighing of the evidence, which is not permitted.
The appellate court reasoned that the trial court’s decision was based primarily on the fact that the father would not have as much contact with his son, disregarding the other relevant factors addressed in the trial court’s specific findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Indiana Supreme Court noted that the trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing over two days and heard the testimony of ten witnesses, including the GAL. The trial court heard testimony about the child’s schooling, sports, friends, and family life. The Indiana Supreme Court found that the trial court had not erred in its ruling and went on to state that appellate courts “are in a poor position to look at a cold transcript of the record, and conclude that the trial judge, who saw the witnesses, observed their demeanor, and scrutinized their testimony as it came from the witness stand, did not properly understand the significance of the evidence.” (citing Kirk v. Kirk, 770 N.E.2d 304, 307 (Ind. 2002) (quoting Brickley v. Brickley, 247 Ind. 201, 204, 210 N.E.2d 850, 852 (1965))).
The Indiana Supreme Court, in affirming the ruling of the trial court, stated that trial courts are afforded a great deal of deference in family law matters, and in this particular case the trial court made sufficient and supportable findings to sustain its decision to prevent relocation and modify custody.
In summary, in Indiana the discretion of a trial court judge will be given great weight in family law matters especially when an order complies with the relevant statutes and lays out clear findings supported by evidence presented. Please contact Dillman & Associates for assistance with Family Law matters in Indiana. We serve the following counties in Indiana – Marion, Boone, Hamilton, Madison, Hendricks, Hancock, Morgan, Shelby.
D.C. v. J.A.C., 32S04-1206-DR-349
Decided 5-0 by the Indiana Supreme Court on November 13, 2012