A famous book and an accompanying menagerie of merchandise counsels us, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” In law, however, this isn’t always good advice. Sometimes, it’s the small stuff that makes all the difference between a successful outcome and an unsuccessful one. In a recent Southern California case, the Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s ruling denying a mother’s request to move herself and her daughters from Bakersfield to the Los Angeles suburbs. The mom lost because none of the custody orders in her case had “the words ‘final,’ ‘permanent,’ or ‘judgment,’ or words to that effect.”
The couple, whose divorce was finalized in 2011, had two daughters. The parents agreed to an arrangement under which they had joint legal and physical custody, with the mother serving as the primary physical custodian. That arrangement worked for two years until, in 2013, the mother decided she wanted to move with the girls to her childhood home of Rancho Palos Verdes. The move would be a substantial one because Rancho Palos Verdes is 140 miles away from Bakersfield, where the girls lived.
The father opposed the move of the children. He asked the court, if it allowed the mother to move to the Los Angeles suburbs, to switch primary physical custody of the daughters from the mother to him. The trial court sided with the father, making no changes to the existing custody and visitation plan but ordering that a move by the mother would trigger a change in primary physical custody. The court did so after finding that a move from Bakersfield to the L.A. suburbs was not in the children’s best interest.
The mother appealed, but she lost at the appellate level as well. One key aspect of the mother’s appeal was her argument that the trial court erred by making its decision after analyzing the best interest of the children. She argued that the father should have been required to show that a move would be detrimental to the girls, which would have been a higher hurdle for the father. (The trial court in this case made no findings regarding detriment or a lack thereof.)
The appeals court rejected her argument because of what was lacking in her case. None of the custody decisions that had ever been made by the trial court in this couple’s case contained “the words ‘final,’ ‘permanent,’ or ‘judgment,’ or words to that effect.” This distinction, which might seem small, was significant in this case. The lack of those words, or words to the same effect, meant that, technically, there was no final, permanent custody and visitation order in place in this family’s case. In the absence of such an order, the trial court was correct in looking at the best interest of the children. Had any of the previous orders amounted to a final, permanent order, the father would have been required to prove that a detriment to the daughters existed.
This family’s case points out just how detailed and nuanced family law cases can be. Many times, it is the small stuff that decides cases. When it comes to your family law issue, you need experienced and knowledgeable counsel working for you. The hardworking San Diego child custody attorneys at Doppelt & Forney have been assisting parents throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, for many years in their custody and visitation cases. For a free consultation, reach out to Doppelt & Forney through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
More blog posts:
California Court Determines Jurisdiction for Child Custody Dispute, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 12, 2016
California Court Cites Due Process Flaws in International Child Custody Case, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 9, 2016