from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska No.
1JU-17-00861 CI, First Judicial District, Juneau, Louis J.
Gabriel E. Sassoon, Baxter Bruce & Sullivan P.C., Juneau,
Higgins, Law Office of Kevin Higgins, Juneau, for Appellee.
Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and
BOLGER, CHIEF JUSTICE.
Juneau couple with three children separated, and the mother
filed for divorce. Wishing to relocate with the children to
Oregon for work, she requested primary physical custody. The
superior court concluded that it was in the children's
best interests to relocate with the mother. The father
appeals. We conclude that the superior court's custody
decision is supported by the record and follows the
appropriate legal framework, so we affirm.
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
and Amanda M. married in 2006. They have three children:
Jacob, Randall, and Marie. Marie sees an ophthalmologist in
Seattle to treat an eye condition. She has also experienced
developmental delays, and an individual education program
(IEP) has been created for her that includes speech and
and Amanda were living in Oregon when Jacob was born but
moved to Juneau in 2008. They are both trained as
physicians-Brett is a general surgeon and Amanda is a
pediatrician - and they moved to Juneau for work. After
Randall's birth they agreed that Amanda would stop
practicing medicine to raise the children and that Brett
would work extra hours to support the family.
couple separated in August 2016 when Brett moved out of the
family home. The children thereafter stayed with Brett
several nights a week.
year after the separation, Amanda sought employment with a
former colleague in Roseburg, Oregon. The former colleague
offered Amanda a position in her practice in May 2018, and
Amanda decided to relocate to Oregon.
filed for divorce in September 2017, requesting physical
custody of the children. The Juneau superior court held a
three-day trial in June 2018. Much of the trial concerned the
legitimacy of Amanda's proposed move. Amanda testified
that, to allow for more time with the children, she did not
want to work full time, and that there were no suitable
part-time pediatric positions available in Juneau. She
explained that she was familiar with Roseburg and believed
she could ease back into her medical practice there in a way
that ensured she had time to spend with the children. She
presented the testimony of two Juneau pediatricians to
support her position about job opportunities there.
Amanda's would-be Oregon colleague also testified about
her practice in Roseburg.
called the director of physician services at Bartlett
Regional Hospital in Juneau to rebut this testimony. Brett
testified that he had alerted Amanda to three job openings
while they were separated but that Amanda did not pursue
them. He said that it would be difficult for him to travel to
Roseburg to visit the children and that Amanda could have
sought employment somewhere closer to Juneau.
also testified that during the couple's separation, there
were two incidents when Amanda refused to leave the children
with him after an argument, taking them out of his car and
interrupting a planned custody exchange. Amanda admitted that
these incidents occurred. Brett also testified that Amanda
had sent him a text threatening to interrupt a trip he had
planned with the children to Florida.
close of testimony, the superior court issued an oral
decision on the record awarding physical custody of the
children to Amanda. The court first found that Amanda's
proposed move to Roseburg was legitimate and not motivated by
a desire to frustrate Brett's access to the
children. The court next addressed each statutory
best interests factor in AS 25.24.150(c),  finding that the
fifth factor - geographic and emotional stability - favored
Amanda, while the remaining factors favored neither parent.
Exercising its discretion under AS 25.24.150(c)(9), the court
considered additional factors it deemed pertinent, finding
that Brett had the resources to exercise liberal visitation,
despite the distance between Roseburg and Juneau, and
expressing confidence that he would continue to be involved
in the children's lives.
trial Brett filed a motion for reconsideration, which the
court denied. Brett appeals both the custody order and the
denial of his motion for reconsideration.
argues that the superior court violated the law governing
custody determinations and made clearly erroneous factual
findings when it awarded custody to Amanda and denied
Brett's motion for reconsideration. We conclude that the
superior court did neither.
The Superior Court Did Not Commit Legal
contends that the superior court's order and its denial
of his motion for reconsideration, taken together, fail to
comply with the legal standards governing custody decisions.
He specifically argues that (1) the superior court's
findings were inadequate as a matter of law, (2) the superior
court impermissibly based its decision on Amanda's
primary caregiver status, and (3) the superior court did not
engage in the symmetrical analysis required when one parent
plans to relocate. We review de novo whether the superior
court applied the correct legal standard.
The superior court's factual findings were
explained that "[i]n reaching a final child custody
determination, 'a trial court is required to make
findings on the various statutory factors which are
sufficient to make the basis of its decision susceptible to
review.' " This requirement stems from AS
25.24.150(c). The court's findings "need not be
extensive" but must be sufficient to demonstrate
which of the nine best interests factors influenced the
custody decision as well as how they were weighed against
superior court here explicitly addressed each best interests
factor and made clear that factors five and nine - the length
of time the child has lived in a stable home and desirability
of continuity, and other factors the court deems pertinent -
formed the basis of its decision. These findings are
sufficient for meaningful appellate review and not inadequate
as a matter of law.
The superior court engaged in proper symmetrical analysis of
best interests factor five.
custody decision when one parent intends to move from Alaska,
the trial court must use a two-step process to determine the
children's best interests. The court must first
"determine whether the planned move is
'legitimate.' " If the move is legitimate, the
court must assume that the move will occur and engage in
"symmetric consideration of the consequences to [the
child] both if [the parent] leaves with [the child] and if
[the parent] leaves without [the child]." We have
stressed that a symmetrical analysis of the fifth best
interests factor is especially important and requires the
court to consider both the emotional and geographic stability
of the child.
superior court found that the children would have greater
geographical stability in Juneau, where they had spent their
whole lives, but this was outweighed by Amanda's
"ability ... to provide superior emotional
stability." The court explained its reasoning further in
its denial of Brett's motion for reconsideration, stating
understood, appreciated, and accounted for [Brett's]
capacity to provide his children emotional care and support.
It also considered that [Jacob, Randall, and Marie] grew up
in Juneau.... The facts, however, indicated that the
emotional stability [Amanda] provided was so profound and
nuanced that it outbalanced the emotional and geographical
stability [Brett] can provide.
analysis did not suffer from the same imbalance that has
characterized orders reversed for failure to conduct
symmetrical analysis. In Saffir v. Wheeler, for
example, the superior court awarded custody to the father
after finding that the mother would interfere with his
ability to parent if she relocated with the
child. We reversed, holding that the superior
court had not engaged in proper symmetrical analysis because
it "did not address the impact of removing the child
from her established routine or from [her mother], the parent
who established it." The order here was not so
one-sided; it considered the effect that living with each
parent, and without the other, would have on the children.
The superior court properly engaged in the symmetrical
analysis required by our precedent.
The superior court did not impermissibly consider
Amanda's primary caregiver status.
superior court relied heavily on its finding that Amanda had
been the children's primary caregiver in its analysis of
the fifth best interests factor. Brett argues that
Amanda's "alleged past primary caregiver status is,
as a matter of law, not adequate to support" the
superior court's findings. He also suggests that whether
a parent is the primary caregiver is not relevant to the
fifth best interests factor.
Alaska law "does not automatically give a custodial
preference to the primary caregiver," we have explained
that "the primary caregiver inquiry may be relevant to
the extent that it affects the determination of the
child's 'stable, satisfactory environment and the
desirability of maintaining continuity.'
" In fact we have explicitly stated that
"[c]ourts should consider 'social and emotional
factors such as who the primary caregiver was for the
child'" when analyzing factor five. Accordingly
it was not legal error for the superior court to consider
Amanda's primary caregiver status as an element in its
fifth best interests factor determination. And Amanda's
role as primary caregiver was not the sole basis for the
court's finding; the superior court also considered her
intention to limit her future work to part time and weighed
the geographic and emotional stability of the children
staying in Juneau with Brett against the emotional stability
staying with Amanda would provide.
The Superior Court's Factual Findings Are Not Clearly
also argues that several of the superior court's findings
were clearly erroneous. "A factual finding is erroneous
if 'based on a review of the entire record, the finding
leaves us with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake
has been made.' " Brett specifically contests
the findings that Amanda's move to Roseburg was
legitimate, that factor one favored neither parent, that
factor five favored Amanda, that factor six favored neither
parent, and that additional considerations under factor nine