April 21, 2019 by Rober Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Two Nebraska courts have gotten it right on shared parenting. More importantly, the case may be a harbinger of things to come. The case of Leners v. Leners was probably not easy to decide, particularly for the trial court, but it reached the correct decision which the state Supreme Court upheld.
Sharon and Stacy Leners were married in 1997 and divorced in 2016. They had two children, one of whom was almost an adult when the case was decided and therefore not part of the custody findings. The younger child was 15.
Sharon was a nurse and Stacy seems to have operated a tractor-trailer rig for the Union Pacific Railroad. He had a somewhat odd work schedule.
Because Stacy’s employment takes him to different locations around the country from the 1st through the 8th day of the month and then the 16th to the 23d day of each month, the court provided him parenting time every month on the 9th to the 15th day and on the 24th to the last day of the month.
Such a week-on/week-off schedule was tailor-made for and equal parenting arrangement post-divorce and that’s exactly what the trial court ordered and the Supreme Court upheld.
What’s perhaps more important though is the fact that both courts saw through the parents’ high conflict within the confines of the divorce action to the fact that both were fit parents. They were good enough parents, just not good enough mates, particularly while the divorce was in progress. To their credit, the courts separated their parental behavior from their conduct of their litigation.
Sharon particularly abused both Stacy and the judicial system. Here is a part of the trial court’s findings:
The court found that Sharon “doused in diesel fuel” some of Stacy’s clothing and destroyed Stacy’s grandmother’s dishes by “intentionally shooting [them] with a gun.”…
[Sharon’s] testimony regarding the creation of the calendars she purported to have been created simultaneously with the events proved to be inaccurate in that the calendars were printed in March of 2017 and purported to reflect events dating back six months prior[, and] was not credible. [Sharon’s] testimony regarding her lack of knowledge of the birthdate, approximate age or address of the gentleman she had been dating for seven months prior was suspect. [Sharon’s] testimony that [the older child] lived in the marital home through the date of trial was admitted to be false on cross examination when she admitted that [the older child] had not stayed overnight in the home since May of 2017. [Sharon’s] testimony that [the older child] has never stayed overnight with [Stacy] since separation was admitted to be false on cross-examination. [Sharon’s] testimony that she did all of the transporting of [the younger child] during the marriage was also admitted to be false on cross examination when she admitted that when [Stacy] was not working, he picked [the child] up from school each day. [Sharon’s] testimony in her affidavit for temporary custody and her matching testimony at trial that [Stacy] promised to pay one-half of the current cheer bill of $260 a month was also admitted by her on cross examination to be false when she admitted that [Stacy] told her he could not afford to pay the increased fee of $260 a month (com- pared to the $110 a month) for [the cheer bill] and further she admitted that he had never agreed to pay it.
Yes, both parents behaved badly in litigation, but not toward their daughter. Each is fit to care for the child and both will do so because the courts remained focused on the important issue – the girl’s well-being.
But the Supreme Court didn’t stop there. It opened the door, at least a bit, for future courts to deviate from the judge-made precedent in Nebraska that shared custody isn’t favored.
[W]e recognize that we have said joint physical custody must be reserved for those cases where, in the judgment of the trial court, the parents are of such maturity that the arrangement will not operate to allow the child to manipulate the parents or confuse the child’s sense of direction, and will provide a stable atmosphere for the child to adjust, rather than perpetuating turmoil or custodial wars. While generally sensible, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. A statute specifically provides that a court may order joint custody “if the court specifically finds, after a hearing in open court, that joint physical custody or joint legal custody, or both, is in the best interests of the minor child regardless of any parental agreement or consent.”
I can easily see attorneys whose clients seek equal parenting time citing the phrase “this is not a hard-and-fast rule.” It certainly shouldn’t be. Even a rule favoring shared parenting shouldn’t be “hard and fast.” But when both parents are fit to care for a child, the child shouldn’t lose its meaningful relationship with one of them.
We’ve been saying that here at the National Parents Organization for many years. It’s good to see a court coming around – however slowly – to our point of view.