Supreme Court of Alaska (2022)
Anighya H.D. Crocker
In Walsh v. Singleton, No. S-18155, 2022 WL 2092566 (Alaska June 8, 2022) (unpublished), the supreme court upheld the superior court’s decision to modify an existing custody agreement in light of a mother’s decision to move from Anchorage to Wasilla. (Id. at *1–2). A separated mother and father engaged in a long custody dispute over their two children. (Id. at *1). In 2016, the couple agreed to a joint legal and shared physical custody agreement, but the superior court later modified the arrangement to a week on/week off shared physical custody schedule. (Id. *1–2). In 2021, the mother filed a “Motion for Permanent Change of School” after she bought a house in Wasilla with her new husband. (Id. at *2). However, the superior court, citing the distance from Anchorage and Wasilla, found that the motion essentially amounted to a request to modify the week on/week off arrangement. (Id.). After hearing from both parties, the superior court modified the arrangement to give the mother primary physical custody during the school year. (Id.). The father appealed the court’s modification on the grounds that he believed (1) the move to Wasilla was not a substantial change in circumstances; (2) the mother had no legitimate reason for moving; and (3) the modifications did not reflect the children’s best interests. (Id. at *3). On appeal, the supreme court noted that it would only overturn the lower court for clear error or abuse of discretion because the superior court possessed broad discretion in child custody decisions. (Id.). The court noted that modifying custody arrangements is a two-step process: a superior court must first determine (1) if there has been a substantial change in circumstances, and if so (2) that a modification would be in the children’s best interest. (Id.). The court then found that the lower court reasonably determined that the distance between Wasilla and Anchorage constituted a substantial change in circumstances. (Id.). Furthermore, the court noted that a superior court may not restrict a parent’s decision to relocate but may only ask whether the relocation was motivated by spite. (Id. at *4). Because the parties presented no evidence of spite, the supreme court held that the superior court did not err in finding the move legitimate. (Id.). Finally, the supreme court held that the lower court did not err when it decided that a new arrangement would benefit the children because the mother provided unrebutted testimony that the father had stopped communicating with the children. (Id. at *5). Thus, the supreme court affirmed the superior court’s decision to modify an existing custody agreement in light of the mother’s decision to move from Anchorage to Wasilla. (Id. at *1–2).