When parents separate or divorce, it may lead to their children having a legal residence in different cities. This can lead to disputes regarding which school district that the child will attend. The issue becomes even more contentious when a parent decides to move a significant distance away from the other parent which can cause the children to be enrolled in a school district so far away that the other parent cannot meaningfully participate in the education process. In Michigan, parents often share joint legal custody of the child even if one parent has actual physical custody. This means that both parents have to agree on major decisions affecting the child’s life such as education, medical treatment and even religious upbringing. What happens if parents cannot agree on basic issues such as the school district that the child will attend?
A parent cannot make a unilateral decision about the child’s school district if he or she shares joint legal custody with the other parent. If the parents cannot agree, then the issue will have to be resolved by the court. In Lombardo v Lombardo, 202 Mich App 151, 160; 507 NW2d 788 (1993), the Michigan Court of Appeals determined “that a trial court must determine the best interests of the child in resolving disputes concerning ‘important decisions affecting the welfare of the child’ that arise between joint custodial parents.” The trial court must consider, evaluate and determine each of the best interest factors listed under MCL 722.23:
- (a) The love, affection, and other emotional ties existing between the parties involved and the child.
- (b) The capacity and disposition of the parties involved to give the child love, affection, and guidance and to continue the education and raising of the child in his or her religion or creed, if any.
- (c) The capacity and disposition of the parties involved to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care or other remedial care recognized and permitted under the laws of this state in place of medical care, and other material needs.
- (d) The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment, and the desirability of maintaining continuity.
- (e) The permanence, as a family unit, of the existing or proposed custodial home or homes.
- (f) The moral fitness of the parties involved.
- (g) The mental and physical health of the parties involved.
- (h) The home, school, and community record of the child.
- (i) The reasonable preference of the child, if the court considers the child to be of sufficient age to express preference.
- (j) The willingness and ability of each of the parties to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent or the child and the parents. A court may not consider negatively for the purposes of this factor any reasonable action taken by a parent to protect a child or that parent from sexual assault or domestic violence by the child’s other parent.
- (k) Domestic violence, regardless of whether the violence was directed against or witnessed by the child.
- (l) Any other factor considered by the court to be relevant to a particular child custody dispute.
The premier case in Michigan concerning school district issues is Pierron v Pierron, 486 Mich 81; 782 NW2d 480 (2010). The parents in that case divorced in 2000 and live separately in Grosse Pointe Woods with their two children. In 2007, the defendant relocated to Howell, MI (over 60 miles away) and tried to enroll the children in the Howell public school district, but the plaintiff objected. After a six-day trial, the circuit court judge determined that the defendant’s proposed change of school districts would modify the children’s custodial environment because the plaintiff’s parenting time would be adversely affected by the 60-mile distance between the proposed schools and the plaintiff’s home. The trial court decided that the defendant has not met the burden of proof of clear and convincing evidence necessary to justify the modification, so the request to change school districts was denied.
The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and determined that the established custodial environment would not be modified by the modification. In addition, the Court of Appeals held that the appropriate standard of proof was the lesser standard of preponderance of the evidence for the school district decision, so the case was sent back to the trial court. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The Michigan Supreme Court determined that the Court of Appeals was correct and that the trial court should have used the lesser standard of preponderance of the evidence to decide if the change in school districts since the established custodial environment would not be modified. In this case, the plaintiff’s weekend parenting time was unaffected by the school change and was “involved with the children during the daytime for only one week out of every seven because this is all that his work schedule allows.” Although the increased distance was more inconvenient for the plaintiff, “it is not so far that plaintiff cannot continue his occasional midweek activities with his children and his involvement in their education.” Plaintiff’s own testimony acknowledges that the children “spend most of their time” with “their mother”, so the changes in established custodial environment shared between the parties should be, from the children’s prospective, minor if at all. According to the Michigan Supreme Court, “the trial court’s determination that the proposed change of schools would alter the established custodial environment was against the great weight of the evidence.”
Now that the issue of the appropriate burden of proof is settled, the Michigan Supreme Court turned to the issue of whether the best interest factors were properly weighted to the parties in order to make the decision about the school district issue. The Court of Appeals addressed the best interests factors by concluding that “”the court must narrowly focus its consideration of each best-interest factor on the specific `important decision affecting the welfare of the child’ that is at issue.” The Michigan Supreme Court agreed. The trial court in this case had correctly considered every best interest factor even while expressing frustration that many of them have nothing to do with the school change issue. For example, the circuit court judge considered factor (c) in favor of the plaintiff to better have the “capacity and disposition of the parties involved to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care or other remedial care recognized and permitted under the laws of this state in place of medical care, and other material needs.” Although the defendant had failed to make efforts to find full time income and the disparity of incomes could be relevant in a potential change of custody issue, the trial court lamented that it has little to do with deciding what the best school district was.
The Michigan Supreme Court further observed the following:
- “Recognizing that even though each of the factors might not be relevant to the issue, MCL 722.23 requires consideration of “all” the factors, the Court held that “[t]he trial court must at least make explicit factual findings with regard to the applicability of each factor.” at 157 (emphasis added). We believe that this approach complies with MCL 722.23 and allows for the proper evaluation of whether an important decision is genuinely in the best interests of the children, in accordance with the Child Custody Act. Therefore, we hold that when a trial court is considering a decision that will not modify the established custodial environment, such as the change-of-school issue in this case, it must consider the applicability of all the factors. However, if the trial court determines that a particular factor is irrelevant to the immediate issue, it need not make substantive factual findings concerning the factor beyond this determination, but need merely state that conclusion on the record.” Id at 91-92.
- “To summarize, when considering an important decision affecting the welfare of the child, the trial court must first determine whether the proposed change would modify the established custodial environment of that child. In making this determination, it is the child’s standpoint, rather than that of the parents, that is controlling. If the proposed change would modify the established custodial environment of the child, then the burden is on the parent proposing the change to establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that the change is in the child’s best interests. Under such circumstances, the trial court must consider all the best-interest factors because a case in which the proposed change would modify the custodial environment is essentially a change-of-custody case. On the other hand, if the proposed change would not modify the established custodial environment of the child, the burden is on the parent proposing the change to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the change is in the child’s best interests. In addition, under those circumstances, although the trial court must determine whether each of the best-interest factors applies, if a factor does not apply, the trial court need not address it any further. In other words, if a particular best-interest factor is irrelevant to the question at hand, i.e., whether the proposed change is in the best interests of the child, the trial court need not say anything other than that the factor is irrelevant.” Id at 92-93.
- “In this case, because we agree with the Court of Appeals that the proposed change of schools will not modify the established custodial environment, we affirm the Court of Appeals’ decision to vacate the trial court’s order. However, even by a `preponderance of the evidence’ standard, this case presents a very close question with regard to whether attending Howell Schools is in the best interests of the children. It is clear that plaintiff is concerned about his children, is involved in their education, and provides guidance, structure, and discipline even when the children are not in his care. While the change of schools would not modify the established custodial environment, we recognize that the change of schools may, in fact, impair plaintiff’s ability to be readily accessible to provide guidance and structure. These facts, of course, are relevant to assessing where the interests of these children lie, and, on remand, we encourage the trial court to carefully consider all relevant factors when making this assessment.” Id at 93-94.
If a parent wishes to pursue a change of school district request to the court, then he or she must be prepared to present legally admissible evidence to the judge to support that request. This will entail relevant information about the pros and cons of each school district, the opinions of the children’s current teachers, report cards or progress reports, and evidence regarding how the other parent’s visitation will or will not be affected. A parent trying to prevail in a legal battle over school district modification needs to have a skilled and knowledgeable lawyer in their corner that can help present the best case possible. You may only get one opportunity to properly present your case to the court. Otherwise, the court will only consider legal custody issues when there is proper cause or change of circumstances to entertain those issues.
If you or a loved one have questions about family law or need legal representation, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.