The Court of Appeals of Indiana | Child Custody Dispute Order to the Trial Court
On March 16, 2022, the Court of Appeals of Indiana remanded a fresh child custody hearing in an appeal filed by the appellant, a father. Miller v. Miller, No. 21A-DR-2311 (Ind. App. Mar. 16, 2022). It discussed the existence of a prima facie error in the trial court’s order, viz. non-consideration of the best interest of the children. It also elaborated upon the pertinent role of the trial court in a family law matter.
On December 27, 2016, the trial court had ordered that the respondent, the mother, would have sole legal custody and primary physical custody of the parties’ children. It further held that the appellant would be granted parenting time in accordance with the terms agreed by the parties, which would not be less than what was provided in the Parenting Time Guidelines. Thereafter, in early 2018, the appellant filed a petition before the Appellate Court of Indiana, seeking modification of custody. In furtherance of the same, on June 25, 2018, Guardian ad litem Gloria Rahman filed a report before the court and recommended that the parties should have joint legal custody. An updated report was also filed with an unchanged recommendation. A few months later, the parties agreed to joint legal and physical custody and filed an agreement for the same. The agreement was then entered by the court vide an order.
However, on February 26, 2019, the appellant filed a “Petition to modify child support”. Therein, he made certain allegations such as children catching bed bugs from the respondent’s residence, the respondent’s failure to give medication to one of their children, and injury caused to a child by the respondent. Petitioner requested the court to order the guardian ad litem to investigate and schedule a hearing on the petition. He further alleged that there had been a continuing and substantial change of circumstances, thereby warranting a change of custody. In response to the same, the respondent also filed a similar petition alleging that there was a substantial distance between the parents’ residences and coordination of logistics had become difficult, thus causing unexpected tension between the parties. Soon after, she filed an Emergency Petition for Writ of Assistance. She alleged that the appellant failed to send back the children and requested the court order enforcement of the existing orders and sending law enforcement to assist her in retrieving the children. On the same day, the court ordered the parties to supply information regarding an investigation done by the Dubois County Department of Child Services (“DCS”). GAL Rahmad in her report recommended that the current order is in effect until the conclusion of the DCS investigation.
In July 2020, GAL Rahman filed an updated report and recommended granting temporary primary physical custody to the appellant, with several provisions and conditions. Ultimately, on July 30, 2020, the trial court maintained its earlier order for shared legal custody and ordered granting of primary custody to the respondent. It held the appellant to be in contempt of court for interfering with the respondent’s parenting time and ordered him to pay the respondent’s attorney fees. The appellant appealed against this order. He alleged that the trial court abused its discretion by an order granting primary physical custody of the children to the respondent, and made no findings regarding the best interests of the children. The Miller panel agreed with the appellant’s contention and the Appellate Court of Indiana ordered a remand for the trial court to consider the statutory factors, substantial change in circumstances, and the best interests of the child to make the necessary findings. However, on September 20, 2021, the original presiding trial court judge issued an Order on Remand and awarded the respondent the primary physical custody of children and found the appellant to be in contempt of court. Thus, the appellant filed the present appeal.
The Court of Appeals of Indiana held a discussion over the existence of a prima facie error in the trial court’s order. It said that for the purpose of this matter, a prima facie error would mean an error at first sight or an error on the face of it. See Prater v. Wineland, 160 N.E.3d 540, 542-3 (Ind.Ct.App. 2020). The Court of Appeals of Indiana stated that the trial court’s order had no findings explicitly addressing the children’s best interests, which gave rise to the prima facie error. It said, “had there been relevant and substantial findings from which we could discern the trial court’s determination of best interests, we may have affirmed the custody order. See In re Paternity of M.P.M.W., 908 N.E.2d 1205 at 1208-09 (Ind.Ct.App.2009).” Although the Court agreed that the appellant succeeded in establishing a prima facie error in the trial court’s order, however, it refused to allow the relief sought by him, i.e., primary physical custody of the children.
It quoted Best v. Best, 941 N.E.2d 499, 502 (Ind. 2011) and held that the appellate courts afford trial court a great deal of difference in family law matters as they have an opportunity for extended face-to-face interactions with the parties. Further, the trial courts are able to assess the credibility and character of the parties involved, and therefore, are in a better position to resolve the best interest dispute. Therefore, the Court of Appeals of Indiana remanded to the trial court for a fresh custody hearing in consistence with its opinion.
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