How Is Child Custody Decided in Wyoming? What Is Meant By “Best Interests of the Child”?
Statutory Rules Effect Custody. Statutory rules guide a court’s decision in Wyoming concerning placement of custody of the children in a contested divorce or paternity case. The same rules also guide the parents and their attorneys as they negotiate custody. A court order granting custody, or a settlement agreement between the parents, should use well-defined terms to promote understanding and compliance by the parents and may include any combination of joint, shared or sole custody. W.S. § 20–2–201(d).
The overarching rule in Wyoming is that: “The court may make by decree or order any disposition of the children that appears most expedient and in the best interests of the children.” W.S. § 20–2–201(a). The best interests of the children is determined by considering several factors that are also set out in the statute. Spousal abuse or child abuse is one of those factors and may determine the outcome of the custody dispute.
The court and the negotiating parents should consider these additional statutory factors:
- The quality of the relationship each child has with each parent;
- The ability of each parent to provide adequate care for each child throughout each period of responsibility, including arranging for each child’s care by others as needed;
- The relative competency and fitness of each parent;
- Each parent’s willingness to accept all responsibilities of parenting, including a willingness to accept care for each child at specified times and to relinquish care to the other parent at specified times;
- How the parents and each child can best maintain and strengthen a relationship with each other;
- How the parents and each child interact and communicate with each other and how such interaction and communication may be improved;
- The ability and willingness of each parent to allow the other to provide care without intrusion, respect the other parent’s rights and responsibilities, including the right to privacy;
- Geographic distance between the parents’ residences;
- The current physical and mental ability of each parent to care for each child; and
- Any other factors that are necessary and relevant.
Within this non-exclusive list of ten factors, two important factors are the relative competency and fitness of each parent” and “the quality of the relationship each child has with each parent.” The occurrence of child or spousal abuse is always important and may create a presumption of unfitness as to the abusing parent.
Being the children’s primary caregiver is another important factor. In deciding placement of the children, the court will often grant custody to the primary care giver, if there are no negative offsetting factors that apply to the primary care giver. If both parents are primary care givers, the court will carefully weigh each parent’s relative fitness against each factor.
Wyoming Supreme Court Precedential Framework. The application of the factors is left to the divorce court judge, but there are numerous Wyoming Supreme Court decisions that provide a framework for the judge to interpret and apply the statutory factors.
Factual circumstances are highly variable between different divorces. While no single factor is determinative, some statutory factors may receive greater weight and emphasis than others, depending on the circumstances. To get a sense of how the factors are applied in specific cases, consider the following Wyoming Supreme Court decisions:
“While primary caregiver status is a weighty consideration in a custody determination, it is not in all cases ultimately determinative; rather, the primary caregiver is another factor among the many that the district court considers, and other factors may outweigh primary caregiver status.” Pahl v. Pahl, 87 P.3d 1250 (Wyo. 2004).
“Weighting the statutory factors against the conduct of the parties and focusing on parental fitness, instead of moral fitness, was a correct exercise of the court’s discretion.” In re Paternity of JWH, 252 P.3d 942 (Wyo. 2011).
In spite of concerns about the parenting skills of both parents, the court was correct to award custody to wife who “expressed strong willingness to work with social agency to develop better parenting skills so as to be able to properly raise children.” Uhls v. Uhls, 794 P.2d 894 (Wyo. 1990).
Where husband provided patience and nurturing for children, and where wife had hectic work schedule, alcohol had negatively impacted her relationship with children, and she moved a man into family home within eight weeks after meeting him, the court properly exercised its discretion in granting custody to husband. Lopez v. Lopez, 116 P.3d 1098 (Wyo. 2005).