Missouri Court Holds Child Custody Sub-Issues Require a Best Interests Determination

Black father and daughter lying in floor coloring. Concept for Missouri Court Holds Child Custody Sub-Issue Require a Childs Best Interests Determination

Although every parent wants what is best for their child, those who are divorced or separated may not always agree how their children should be raised. One particular area of contention can concern education and the school the child should attend. Two related issues that can stem from this can involve the designation of the minor child’s residence for mailing and educational purposes — and the court’s ability to decide what school a minor should attend if the parents can’t agree. A recent case brought before the Missouri Court of Appeals, Sendlein v. Sendlein shed light upon both these issues.

What Happened in Sendlein v. Sendlein?

In the case Sendlein v. Sendlein, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District considered two issues that fall into the category of “sub-issues of custody.” These include the issues of designation of the child’s residence for mailing and educational purposes, as well as where the child should attend school. As held by the court, the legislature has directed that all issues related to custody must be determined based on the best interests of the child standard.

The case concerned divorced parents who shared joint legal and physical custody of their one child. According to the divorce judgment and parenting plan, the mother and father were to confer and agree upon all matters regarding their child’s upbringing — including issues that must be decided in connection with the child’s education.

Per the dissolution decree, the father’s address — previously the marital home — was designated the child’s residential address for the purpose of mailing and school. A short time after the circuit court entered the dissolution decree, the father informed the mother by text message that he was vacating the residence before it was sold. The mother then filed a motion to modify the decree on the grounds that the father “unilaterally moved the residence of the child” without following the relocation notification requirements of the law. She also argued that the father repeatedly failed to communicate with her regarding where the child was residing and did not follow the terms of the parenting plan for custody exchanges.

The father returned to reside in the marital home until after it was sold and both parties agreed that the child would attend a parochial school for pre-kindergarten. Although the child was enrolled in the same school for the following year, the father sent the mother a letter that he planned to relocate and purchase a home in another school district. The mother argued that the relocation was a violation of the parenting plan. The father withdrew the child from the parochial school unilaterally and informed the mother that the child would not attend the school unless ordered by the court.

The Court’s Decision in the Case

A trial was held in the circuit court to decide the issue regarding the child’s schooling. The court evaluated a wide array of evidence, including the mother’s testimony concerning the child’s friendships at the school and the child’s involvement in activities at the school. The principal testified regarding the school’s curriculum and the child’s above-average performance on her tests. The child’s maternal grandmother also provided testimony concerning her close proximity to the school, and the after-school care that she is able to provide for the child.

The father’s evidence in the case mainly focused on comparing the quality of the local school districts. However, his expert witness had testified she was not familiar with the parochial school’s curriculum.

The circuit court ultimately found that it was in the child’s best interests to remain at the parochial school, emphasizing the evidence presented by the mother. The court also found that in addition to meeting the child’s best interests, the school also met the child’s specific educational needs. It ordered the child’s continued attendance at the school but did not order the father to pay tuition.

The Residential Address Issue

On appeal, the father argued that the lower court’s modification of the child’s address was not supported by evidence because both parties testified they did not want the child to attend the school associated with the mother’s residential address. He also asserted the argument that the court could not compel attendance at a private school.

The appellate court disagreed with the father’s position and found that the designation of “residential parent” is a sub-issue related to custody, requiring the best interests of the child standard to be applied. However, it does not permit the parent to choose a different school simply because they relocate if they would not otherwise be entitled to do so. The appellate court found that a change had occurred, and substantial evidence supported a modification of the child’s residential address to provide stability for her education.

The School Issue

The appellate court noted that when parents are awarded joint legal custody, they share decision-making authority concerning their child’s education and should confer with each other regarding the matter. It held that education is another “sub-issue” of custody that circuit courts can address in the event parents cannot reach an agreement. The appellate court determined that the father’s arguments were unpersuasive as they relied solely on the reputation of each of the parties’ local public school districts.

In addition, the appellate panel found that the lower court was not required to render a finding that the parochial school met the child’s particular educational needs because he was not ordered to pay tuition. Rather, this would be the criteria applied in child support cases, which was not applicable in the matter. Upholding the lower court’s decision, the appellate court further noted that the father did not challenge the circuit court’s holding that attendance at the parochial school was in the best interests of the child.

Contact an Experienced Kansas City Divorce Attorney

If you are facing a child custody dispute — or a sub-issue of custody — it’s essential to have a skillful attorney to fight for your rights and ensure the best possible outcome. Divorce and family law attorney Mark A. Wortman provides knowledgeable representation to clients in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area who are facing divorce and child custody matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to learn how he can assist you, please contact him today online or by calling (816) 523-6100.