The Iowa Court of Appeals recently decided a case that involves several points including child custody, visitation and support.  The case is brought on appeal by Daniel Moyer from the Iowa District Court for Pottawattamie County.  Daniel and his ex-wife Ashley Moyer were married in March of 2008 and had previously had a son, Gabriel, born in July 2006.   They divorced in June of 2010.  All of the issues were decided and included in the couple’s dissolution of marriage decree.

 In Re the Marriage of Ashley Moyer and Daniel Moyer

The couple lived with Dan’s parents rent and expense free while Ashley was pregnant with their child and after the birth when married.  The court finds that although living with Dan’s parents, both Dan and Ashley were ambitious and industrious.  Dan went to school for an associate’s degree in math while Ashley took care of their child and eventually attended culinary school and worked in food service.

When Dan and Ashley separated, Ashley moved out of her in-law’s home with Gabriel, however, Dan continued to care for Gabriel at night while Ashley worked.  Approximately a year later, Dan moved to Laramie, Wyoming to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming.  He lived with his girlfriend and her child.  Ashley continued to live and work in Council Bluffs.

The divorce decree, entered August 23, 2011, granted physical care to Ashley with Dan receiving visitation when he is in Iowa, along with 6 weeks of visitation in the summer and over the Christmas holidays.  Dan was ordered to pay $195.13 per month in child support.  Soon after the decree was entered, Dan filed a combined motion for new trial, expanded findings, and interpretation.

 Court of Appeals Reviews District Court’s Child Custody, Visitation and Support Decision

 Child Custody

The Court reviews child custody decisions de novo, meaning they examine the entire record and make new judgments on each issue presented.  They will give strong consideration to the district court’s findings of fact.

In favor of his being granted child custody, Dan argues that he is the more stable parent, he had been the primary caregiver, the proximity of Gabriel to his grandparents was relied too heavily upon by the district court, and that Ashley disregards his role as a parent.  The court views all of these arguments in the light of what is in the best interest of the child.  The factors set forth in Iowa Code section 598.41(3) (2009) guide the court:

 

3.  In considering what custody arrangement under subsection 2 is in the best interest of the minor child, the court shall consider the following factors:

 

a.  Whether each parent would be a suitable custodian for the child.

b.  Whether the psychological and emotional needs and development of the child will suffer due to lack of active contact with and attention from both parents.

c.  Whether the parents can communicate with each other regarding the child’s needs.

d.  Whether both parents have actively cared for the child before and since the separation.

e.  Whether each parent can support the other parent’s relationship with the child.

f.  Whether the custody arrangement is in accord with the child’s wishes or whether the child has strong opposition, taking into consideration the child’s age and maturity.

g.  Whether one or both the parents agree or are opposed to joint custody.

h.  The geographic proximity of the parents.

i.  Whether the safety of the child, other children, or the other parent will be jeopardized by the awarding of joint custody or by unsupervised or unrestricted visitation.

j.  Whether a history of domestic abuse, as defined in section 236.2, exists.  In determining whether a history of domestic abuse exists, the court’s consideration shall include, but is not limited to, commencement of an action pursuant to section 236.3, the issuance of a protective order against the parent or the issuance of a court order or consent agreement pursuant to section 236.5, the issuance of an emergency order pursuant to section 236.6, the holding of a parent in contempt pursuant to section 664A.7, the response of a peace officer to the scene of alleged domestic abuse or the arrest of a parent following response to a report of alleged domestic abuse, or a conviction for domestic abuse assault pursuant to section 708.2A.

In regards to being the more stable parent, the court finds nothing with regard to Ashley’s employment or living situation that would hamper her ability to care for Gabriel.  In fact, they agree with the district court’s determination that Ashley actually provides the more stable environment that includes Gabriel’s grandparents.

The court also rules in Ashley’s favor in regards to the question of who was Gabriel’s primary caregiver.  The court finds that both parties are capable of caring for the child.  At trial, Ashley testified that she was in fact the primary caregiver and Dan agreed.

Dan’s argument that the district court relied too heavily upon the proximity of Gabriel to his grandparents also did not survive.  The court discusses the fact that Dan could have chosen to attend school at a University only 3 hours away that offers the same program that he is enrolled in at the University of Wyoming.  They find that although Ashley’s plans may change, at the present time, she is planning to remain in Council Bluffs near Gabriel’s extended family.  The court does not believe that the district court placed too much importance on this factor.

Finally, the court finds that although Ashley could have made better efforts at communication on certain issues with Dan, Ashley and Dan have actually been able to work together in the past.  The minor communication glitches do not warrant a finding that Ashley disregards Dan’s role as parent.

Overall, the court of appeals agrees with the district court that it is in the child’s best interest to place physical care of Gabriel with Ashley.  They mention that Dan’s decision to attend school 8 hours away from his extended family tipped the balance in favor of Ashley.

Child Visitation

Just as with child custody, the child’s best interest is the main consideration of the court when ruling on visitation.  Iowa Code section 598.41(1) guides their decision:

598.41  CUSTODY OF CHILDREN.

1. a.  The court may provide for joint custody of the child by the parties.  The court, insofar as is reasonable and in the best interest of the child, shall order the custody award, including liberal visitation rights where appropriate, which will assure the child the opportunity for the maximum continuing physical and emotional contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved the marriage, and which will encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child unless direct physical harm or significant emotional harm to the child, other children, or a parent is likely to result from such contact with one parent.

Dan argues that the visitation schedule in the decree fails to maximize contact with both parents.  He requests additional visitation in his appeal.  He also asks for improved telephonic and electronic communication with Gabriel.  Dan also complains that the burdens of travel are placed on him.

In order to provide maximum contact with both parents, the court modifies the decree so Dan receives additional visitation during Thanksgiving and Spring Breaks.  The court also agrees that it would be fair for Ashley to have to share in the expense of Dan traveling to see Gabriel in limited circumstances.

 Child Support

The final issue the court considers is the amount of child support Dan is required to pay.  In Iowa, child support is determined by guidelines set forward by the Iowa Supreme Court.  The court determines both parent’s monthly income to arrive at the amount of child support owed.  The court decides that Dan is capable of working part time despite his demanding school schedule and that the student loans he voluntarily took out may be applied to his monthly income.  The court requires Dan to pay $195.13 in child support.

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