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October 28, 2005
Case Law Development: Necessity of Detailed Findings of Fact in Custody Cases Where Abuse is Present
With trial courts hearing thousands of family law cases each year, the desire for efficiency in decision-making is understandable. However, the Missouri Court of Appeals has emphasized that, when those cases involve custody decisions, courts must explain their judgments adequetely.
In this case, the judge's failure to make specific findings of fact and conclusion of law required reversal of its decision to grant parents joint physical and legal custody of their child. The court found that, when parents do not agree on a parenting plan, a trial judge may not justify its custody decision with a statement that "each of the applicable and relevant factors in [the custody statute] were duly considered in accordance with the best interest of the child." Rather, the court must make findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding all the relevant statutory factors.
The trial judge's failure to do so in this case was even more so in error because Mother had presented substantial evidence of domestic violence include a police report and a protective order. Missouri statutes require judges to make specific findings whenever there is evidence of domestic violence presented in a custody action. If the court finds that abuse has occurred, even if only one incident and regardless of the custody arrangement ordered, the court must make specific findings showing that the custody arrangement protects the safety of the children and the victim of that abuse. If the court finds that a pattern of abuse has occurred, and it awards custody to the abuser, it must enter written findings of fact and conclusions of law justifying that decision.
The Missouri Court of Appeals remanded for the trial court to make the necessary findings in this case. (Mother had also raised an issue regarding judge's ex parte communication with Father, which the Court of Appeals directed that the trial court to either explain on the record why that communication did not reflect bias or to recuse itself).
Sewell-Davis v. Franklin, 2005 Mo. App. LEXIS 1556 (October 25, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://www.courts.mo.gov/courts/pubopinions.nsf/ccd96539c3fb13ce8625661f004bc7da/a57a7042195450b4862570a4005ba0a8?OpenDocument (Last visited October 28, 2005 bgf)