Three unpublished cases this week, including one international contest over jurisdiction, and yet more non-binding guidance on the use of Parenting Consultants.

Custody Across Borders

In re the Marriage of Moyne v.s Moyne, A13-2077 (Minn. Ct. App. May 12, 2014). Moyne offers a helpful discussion of three different subject-matter jurisdiction statutes in the context of an international child custody dispute, though under the shadow of a very sad set of facts for the parties and their children.

The Moynes were married in 2003, and lived in Minnesota until 2010. In October of that year, Father, a French citizen, relocated to France. Mother joined Father in France with their two children from mid-April through June of 2011, allegedly with the intention of relocating to France. Mother ultimately returned to Minnesota and filed for divorce in September 2011, while the children were still residing with her in Minnesota. The children returned to France shortly thereafter, and Father refused to return them to Minnesota despite court orders that he do so (a case for their return was pending before France’s highest court).

After an evidentiary hearing to address the issue of jurisdiction and a full trial on custody and parenting time, the District Court found that it had jurisdiction over the divorce, custody and child support matters, and awarded sole legal and physical custody to Mother. Father appealed, arguing, among other things that the Court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to decide the case because Mother had not been a resident of Minnesota for 180 days prior to filing for divorce (see Minn. Stat. 518.07) and because Minnesota was not the children’s home state (see Minn. Stat. 518D.201 and 518C.101).

The Court of Appeals affirmed in an opinion that provides a useful primer on all three subject matter jurisdiction statutes. Reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals found the evidence sufficient to support the District Court’s conclusion that Mother did not lose her Minnesota residence by traveling to France. The Court focused here on whether Mother truly established an “intent to abandon [her] old home [in Minnesota]” where Mother retained her Minnesota driver’s license, had close family connections to Minnesota, did not send all her belongings to France, and looked for a realtor but never listed the Minnesota home for sale. The Court also noted that Mother is neither fluent in French nor a French citizen, and traveled to France out of financial dependence on Father.

The Court also affirmed the lower Court’s ruling that Minnesota was the children’s home state (giving Minnesota jurisdiction to decide custody and child support matters), reasoning that the record supported a finding that the children’s travel to France was merely a “visit.” The Court was also careful to note that Mother’s alleged intent to relocate the children to France was irrelevant because “the children’s home state analysis focuses on where the children lived, not where their parents intended to reside.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of Father’s refusal to return the children to Minnesota, the Court of Appeals also affirmed the grant of sole physical and legal custody to Mother.

Undoubtedly a very sad case for all involved.

Even More Parenting Consultant Confusion

In re the Marriage of McGraw vs. McGraw, A13-0825 (Minn. Ct. App. May 12, 2014). In a dispute over whether a Court may re-appoint a parenting consultant after his initial term has expired, the Court of Appeals held that a parenting consultant’s term cannot be extended over the objection of one of the parties.

The parties divorced in 2011 and stipulated to custody and parenting time issues, including the appointment of a parenting consultant. Under the terms of the parties’ decree, the parenting consultant’s “appointment will end two years from the date of the signed agreement [May 3, 2011].” The parenting consultant withdrew in October of 2012, and Father moved for the appointment of a new parenting consultant for an additional two-year term. Mother opposed the request, arguing that the District Court did not have the authority to appoint a parenting consultant beyond the term agreed to by the parties. The District Court found that the parties intended to use a parenting consultant as an “ongoing method to resolve parenting disputes” and appointed a new parenting consultant for an additional two years. The Court also noted that appointment of a new parenting consultant was supported on best interests grounds as well. After motions for amended findings, Mother appealed.

Reversing the District Court, the Court of Appeals applied standard principals of contract construction in holding that the parties’ Stipulation was “clear and unambiguous”:

There is no language in the judgment providing that the parenting-consultant contract will be automatically renewed after the conclusion of the original parenting consultant’s initial two-year term…This court will not presume a renewal of the parenting consultant’s appointment beyond the initial two-year term where no such language exists in the parties’ judgment.

Because use of a parenting consultant “hinges on the parties mutual and voluntary agreement,” the District Court exceeded its authority in appointing a new parenting consultant after the expiration of the agreed-upon two year term. Even if the appointment of a parenting consultant (or the extension of his term) would serve the children’s best interests, the Court noted that the District court may not:

[O]rder the parties to appoint a parenting consultant under the guise of the best-interest factors. We stress that the appointment of a parenting consultant is a bargained-for element of a parenting plan between the parties.

Spousal Maintenance Award Reversed

In re the Marriage of Luethmers vs. Luethmers, A13-1352 (Minn. Ct. App. May 12, 2014). A reversal of the amount of a spousal maintenance award where the Court of Appeals found some of Wife’s expenses unsupported by the record.

Without delving too deeply into the facts on this one, the Court of Appeals reversed Wife’s expenses in two significant respects, first removing debt repayment for liabilities Wife agreed to assume under the parties’ marital termination agreement, and second reducing a prescription drug expense that was double-counted below.

While the issue of Wife’s expenses served as the central justification behind the remand, the decision might deserve attention for another reason.

In wake of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in Haefele v. Haefele, practitioners have debated the extent to which the reasoning in that decision (which addressed child support) might be extended to spousal maintenance cases. As part of its remand, the Luethmers Court noted that, “In determining whether a spouse has the ability to pay spousal maintenance, a district court must make a determination of the payor spouse’s net or take-home pay.” While an extension of Haefele was not at issue in this case, the use of net or take-home figures would seem to circumvent much of Haefele‘s analysis. And though it would be a mistake to read too much into one, unpublished decision, the case at least suggests a line of reasoning for those in favor of a more limited reading of Haefele.

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