State v. Jeffery T., 083019 NESC, S-17-1210

Docket Nº:S-17-1210
Opinion Judge:Stacy, J.
Party Name:State of Nebraska on behalf of Kaaden S., a minor child, appellee, v. Jeffery T., appellant, and Mandy S., appellee.
Attorney:Ronald R. Brackle for appellant. Angelica W. McClure, of Kotik & McClure Law, for appellee Mandy S.
Judge Panel:Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg, JJ.
Case Date:August 30, 2019
Court:Supreme Court of Nebraska
 
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303 Neb. 933

State of Nebraska on behalf of Kaaden S., a minor child, appellee,

v.

Jeffery T., appellant,

and

Mandy S., appellee.

No. S-17-1210

Supreme Court of Nebraska

August 30, 2019

1.

Paternity: Appeal and Error. In a filiation proceeding, questions concerning child custody determinations are reviewed on appeal de novo on the record to determine whether there has been an abuse of discretion by the trial court, whose judgment will be upheld in the absence of an abuse of discretion.

2. Judges: Words and Phrases. A judicial abuse of discretion exists if the reasons or rulings of a trial judge are clearly untenable, unfairly depriving a litigant of a substantial right and denying just results in matters submitted for disposition.

3. Evidence: Appeal and Error. In a de novo review, when the evidence is in conflict, the appellate court considers, and may give weight to, the fact that the trial court heard and observed the witnesses and accepted one version of the facts rather than another.

4. Child Custody: Visitation. The Parenting Act does not require any particular parenting time schedule to accompany an award of either sole or joint physical custody, and there exists a broad continuum of possible parenting time schedules that can be in a child's best interests.

5. Child Custody: Visitation: Words and Phrases. An alternating week-on-week-off parenting time schedule requires the child to spend roughly the same amount of time at each parent's residence and allows both parents to exert continuous blocks of parenting time for significant periods of time, and thus meets the statutory definition of joint physical custody.

6. Child Custody: Visitation. Where a parenting plan effectively establishes a joint physical custody arrangement, courts will so construe it, regardless of how prior decrees or court orders have characterized the arrangement.

[303 Neb. 934] 7. Divorce: Child Custody. The Parenting Act authorizes a trial court to award joint custody in dissolution actions if the court specifically finds, after a hearing in open court, that joint physical custody or joint legal custody, or both, is in the best interests of the minor child regardless of any parental agreement or consent.

8. Courts: Appeal and Error. The doctrine of stare decisis requires that appellate courts adhere to their previous decisions unless the reasons therefor have ceased to exist, are clearly erroneous, or are manifestly wrong and mischievous or unless more harm than good will result from doing so. The doctrine is entitled to great weight, but it does not require courts to blindly perpetuate a prior interpretation of the law if it was clearly incorrect.

9. Child Custody: Judges. A blanket rule disfavoring joint physical custody is inconsistent with the Parenting Act and unnecessarily constrains the discretion of trial judges in some of the most important and difficult decisions they are called upon to make.

10.

Child Custody. Joint physical custody is neither favored nor disfavored under Nebraska law. In fact, no custody or parenting time arrangement is either favored or disfavored as a matter of law.

11. ___ . When determining the best interests of the child in deciding custody, a court must consider, at a minimum, (1) the relationship of the minor child to each parent prior to the commencement of the action; (2) the desires and wishes of a sufficiently mature child, if based on sound reasoning; (3) the general health, welfare, and social behavior of the child; (4) credible evidence of abuse inflicted on any family or household member; and (5) credible evidence of child abuse or neglect or domestic intimate partner abuse.

12.

Visitation. The Parenting Act provides that the best interests of a child require a parenting plan that provides for a child's safety, emotional growth, health, stability, physical care, and regular school attendance, and which promotes a child's continued contact with his or her families and parents who have shown the ability to act in the child's best interests.

13. ___ . When determining the allocation of parenting time that is in a child's best interests, a trial court should consider the parties' ability to communicate on issues such as transportation, homework, discipline, medical and dental appointments, and extracurricular activities. Other relevant considerations include stability in the child's routine, mini-malization of contact and conflict between the parents, and the general nature and health of the individual child. The fact that one parent might interfere with the other's relationship with the child is also a factor to consider, but is not a determinative factor.

[303 Neb. 935] 14. Child Support: Rules of the Supreme Court. The Nebraska Child Support Guidelines require child support orders to address how the parents will provide for the child's health insurance.

15. ___: ___. Neb. Ct. R. § 4-215(B) of the Nebraska Child Support Guidelines estimates $480 as an ordinary amount of nonreimbursed medical expenses, and that figure is then subsumed within the amount of child support that is ordered. Any nonreimbursed expenses exceeding $480 are prorated between the parties.

16. ___: ___. Child support payments should generally be set according to the child support guidelines.

Petition for further review from the Court of Appeals. Pirtle, Riedmann, and Welch, Judges, on appeal thereto from the District Court for Jefferson County, Ricky A. Schreiner. Judge. Judgment of Court of Appeals affirmed in part as modified, and in part reversed and remanded with directions.

Ronald R. Brackle for appellant.

Angelica W. McClure, of Kotik & McClure Law, for appellee Mandy S.

Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg, JJ.

Stacy, J.

In this paternity action, the district court awarded primary legal and physical custody of a minor child to the father and awarded the mother nearly equal parenting time. Child support was calculated using a joint custody worksheet, and the father was ordered to pay monthly support. The father appealed, assigning multiple errors, including that the award of nearly equal parenting time was, in effect, an award of joint physical custody and was an abuse of discretion. The Nebraska Court of Appeals agreed, and it reversed and remanded with directions to modify the mother's parenting time so it was "consistent with an award of primary physical custody" to the father.1 In [303 Neb. 936] doing so, the Court of Appeals relied on Nebraska precedent holding that joint physical custody is disfavored and should be reserved for rare cases.2 We granted the mother's petition for further review to reexamine that precedent.[3]

We now hold that a blanket rule disfavoring joint physical custody is inconsistent with the Parenting Act, [4] which requires that all determinations of custody and parenting time be based on factors affecting the best interests of the child. We thus disapprove of our prior rule disfavoring joint physical custody, and we clarify that Nebraska law neither favors nor disfavors any particular custody arrangement and instead requires all such determinations to be based on the best interests of the child.

When the custody and parenting time in the instant case are reviewed under this standard, we find no abuse of discretion. We thus reverse the Court of Appeals' determination to the contrary and remand the matter with directions to affirm the judgment of the district court as it regards custody, parenting time, and child support.

I. FACTS

Kaaden S. was born to Mandy S. and Jeffery T. in June 2014. The parents did not have a dating relationship either before or after conception. Mandy notified Jeffery of her pregnancy, and Jeffery was at the hospital on the day Kaaden was born.

In February 2015, the State filed a paternity action against Jeffery in the district court for Jefferson County, including Mandy as a third-party defendant. Jeffery's answer admitted paternity, and he filed a cross-claim against Mandy seeking [303 Neb. 937] joint legal and physical custody of Kaaden and asking that Kaaden's surname be changed. Mandy's responsive pleading admitted Jeffery was Kaaden's father and requested sole legal and physical custody of Kaaden. Genetic testing later confirmed Jeffery was Kaaden's biological father.

In July 2015, the district court entered an order finding Jeffery was Kaaden's father, but reserved the issues of custody, parenting time, and child support pending further hearing. Approximately 1 year later, when Kaaden was nearly 2 years old, the district court entered an order establishing temporary child support and parenting time. The temporary order allowed Jeffery supervised, nonovernight visits for 60 days and...

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