Dalin v. Dalin

Decision Date23 February 1994
Docket NumberNo. 930159,930159
Citation512 N.W.2d 685
PartiesRoland W. DALIN, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Patricia Jo DALIN, Defendant and Appellee. Civ.
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Brenda M. Zent of Farhart, Lian, Maxson, Louser & Zent, Minot, for plaintiff and appellant.

David W. Nelson, Williston, for defendant and appellee.

LEVINE, Justice.

Roland W. Dalin appeals from an amended judgment modifying child custody and child support. We affirm.

The Dalins were married on June 9, 1989 in Tioga, North Dakota. They had one child during the marriage, born on December 11, 1989. They were divorced on January 21, 1992.

In the original divorce judgment, the district court granted roughly equal-time physical custody of the child to Patricia and Roland until the child reached school age. Roland had custody in September, November, January, March and half of July, during which Patricia had visitation every other weekend. Patricia had custody in February, April, May, June, August, October, December and half of July, during which Roland had visitation for ten days of each month. Roland was to pay child support of $75.00 for each month that Patricia had primary custody. Patricia was to pay no child support. On February 6, 1992, the judgment was modified to correct a clerical error. On October 6, 1992, the judgment again was modified by stipulation to give sole custody to Roland for four months, beginning July 29, 1992, after which custody would revert to the schedule originally ordered by the court. On December 31, 1992, Roland moved for modification, requesting sole custody. During the hearing on Roland's motion, Roland and Patricia stipulated to a "significant change of circumstances necessitating a change of custody." The trial court awarded custody to Patricia from August 25 to June 5 of each year and to Roland during the summer. The trial court also ordered each to provide child support according to the child support guidelines, NDAdminC ch. 75-02-04.1, when not exercising custody over the child.

Roland appealed. He argues that the trial court's custody determination was clearly erroneous and a result of gender bias, and that the trial court's modification of Roland's child support obligation was clearly erroneous.

We treat a trial court's custody determinations as findings of fact and review them under a clearly erroneous standard. NDRCivP 52(a); e.g., Foreng v. Foreng, 509 N.W.2d 38 (N.D.1993) [original custody determination]; Johnson v. Schlotman, 502 N.W.2d 831 (N.D.1993) [modification of custody]. A finding of fact is clearly erroneous if it is induced by an erroneous view of the law, if no evidence exists to support it, or if the reviewing court, on the entire evidence, has a definite and firm conviction that the trial court made a mistake. E.g., Johnson v. Schlotman, supra.

For an original custody determination, the trial court must determine only the best interests and welfare of the child. NDCC Sec. 14-09-06.1; see also, e.g., Gould v. Miller, 488 N.W.2d 42, 43 (N.D.1992). Trial courts have substantial discretion in determining a child's best interests. E.g., Foreng, supra.

For a change of custody determination, the trial court must engage in a two-step analysis. E.g., Barstad v. Barstad, 499 N.W.2d 584 (N.D.1993). First, the trial court determines whether a significant change of circumstances has occurred since the original custody decree. Id. If the court finds a significant change of circumstances, then it must decide whether that change so adversely affects the child that it compels or requires a change in custody to foster the child's best interests. Hagel v. Hagel, 512 N.W.2d 465 (N.D.1994); Johnson v. Schlotman, supra at 834; Delzer v. Winn, 491 N.W.2d 741, 743-44 (N.D.1992); Blotske v. Leidholm, 487 N.W.2d 607, 609 (N.D.1992). The best-interests analysis in a decision to modify custody differs from that in an original custody decision, where the trial court simply applies the best-interests factors of NDCC Sec. 14-09-06.2. Gould v. Miller, supra at 43. In deciding whether to modify custody, the trial court must gauge the factors of section 14-09-06.2 "against the backdrop of the stability of the child's relationship with the custodial parent." Barstad, supra at 587; Orke v. Olson, 411 N.W.2d 97 (N.D.1987). A child is presumed to be better off with the custodial parent, and the trial court should resolve close calls in favor of continuing custody. Delzer v. Winn, supra at 747 (Levine, J., concurring). The trial court should change custody only when the reasons for transferring custody substantially outweigh the child's stability with the custodial parent.

Here, however, the parents stipulated to a "significant change of circumstances necessitating a change of custody," thus dispensing with the need for the usual two-step analysis and its presumption in favor of maintaining the custodial status quo. Instead, the judge properly treated this case as an original disputed custody case and applied the factors of section 14-09-06.2 within the wide range of discretion it has to weigh each factor. E.g., Foreng, supra. The parents' agreement that there was a change of circumstances that required or necessitated a change in custody freed the judge from the constraints of the two-step analysis ordinarily required in modification proceedings and allowed him to treat this case as an original custody determination. Therefore, we limit our review of the trial court's custody modification to whether its determination of the child's best interests was clearly erroneous.

The trial court determined that the best interests of the child were met by placing the child in Patricia's custody. The trial court concluded that although "both parents care deeply" for the child and "are fit parents for custody," Patricia "seems best able to give love and affection without jeopardizing the relationship desirable with the non-custodial parent." See NDCC Sec. 14-09-06.2(1)(b). In so concluding, the trial court found significant the criticism by Roland and his mother of Patricia's lifestyle and parenting abilities, particularly "their beliefs that there are absolutely no redeeming values to Patricia's parenting skills." It is evident that the trial court was concerned about the future of the child's relationship with Patricia, should Roland receive custody, given his unyielding disapproval of Patricia's parenting style. Failure of one parent to cooperate in the maintenance of the other parent's relationship with the child is a factor which the judge may consider relevant in a custody decision. See, e.g., Gravning v. Gravning, 389 N.W.2d 621 (N.D.1986); Lapp v. Lapp, 293 N.W.2d 121 (N.D.1980); cf. Johnson v. Schlotman, supra at 834-35 [affirming trial court's custody order based on its finding that father had not poisoned children's minds against mother]. The court noted that Patricia, on the other hand, was nonjudgmental about Roland's attitudes and would not degrade his relationship with the child.

Roland challenges the trial court's findings as clearly erroneous because they are not supported by the evidence, particularly the finding that Patricia's lifestyle was stabilizing. Conflicting evidence does not render a finding clearly erroneous. See, e.g., Gillmore v. Morelli, 472 N.W.2d 738 (N.D.1991). A choice between two permissible views of the evidence is not clearly erroneous. Id. Patricia testified that she currently holds a day job and has not had a drink since January. Roland makes much of Patricia's history of hosting parties, but Patricia testified that the parties took place when Roland had custody of the child or when the child was at a babysitter's. Although Roland presented one witness who contradicted Patricia's story and testified that she saw the child in the street during one of Patricia's parties, the trial court chose to give Patricia's testimony the weight it deemed appropriate. See, e.g., Freed v. Freed, 454 N.W.2d 516 (N.D.1990). Roland disagrees with the finding that he overstated the "wildness" of Patricia's former lifestyle. But weight and credibility determinations are the exclusive domain of the trial court. Id. The trial court commented on differences between the parties' "sincerity, demeanor, and responsiveness" and found in favor of Patricia. It is precisely because an appellate court cannot assess such intangibles from a cold record that we defer to the trial court. We conclude that the finding that Patricia's life was stabilizing is not clearly erroneous.

The trial court found that Roland and Patricia had custody of the child "roughly the same amount of time" since the divorce. Roland challenges the finding, pointing to his testimony indicating that he had custody approximately seventy percent of the time, although Patricia's testimony indicated that she had custody at least forty percent of the time. Primary caretaking is, of course, a significant factor in deciding custody. Foreng, supra. When both parents substantially share custody, deciding which, if either, is primary caretaker may involve more than a mathematical computation of the days spent in each parent's care, custody and control. The trial court found that neither party had permanence as a family unit due "to the constant shifting of the child" since the divorce. We cannot say that the trial court's finding that neither party clearly enjoyed the advantage of primary caretaker because of the alternating custodial schedule is mistaken.

Roland also challenges several of the trial court's findings which, he argues, are "contradicted by certain evidence." It is up to the factfinder, not us, to weigh conflicting evidence. The mere fact that we might have viewed the evidence differently does not entitle us to reverse the trial court. Reede v. Steen, 461 N.W.2d 438, 440 (N.D.1990). We conclude that there is evidence in support of each of the challenged findings, and we are not left with a definite and firm conviction that the trial...

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