Rankin v. Coffman

Rankin v. Coffman. UPDATE: Discretionary review granted by Kentucky Supreme Court August 15, 2007.

Issue and Holding:
Whether the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction in a modification of child custody case. The Court held no, the trial court did not have proper subject matter jurisdiction.

The parties were divorced in 2001, and granted joint custody of their two minor children, with the wife being designated primary residential custodian. In 2004 the husband filed a petition for child custody, requesting modification of the prior custody order. He alleged that the wife had become unstable since the divorce, that the children attended school not in their residential district, and that the wife’s impending (third) marriage to Dr. Rankin would be detrimental to the children (due to his past history of oral narcotics addiction, depression, and suicidal tendencies). The wife then filed a motion for leave to relocate with the children from Hardin County to Jefferson County. A hearing was held on the wife’s motion, evidence was heard, and the family court granted the motion.
A trial on the husband’s motion for modification of custody was not held until 2006. At trial, testimony was taken from the parties, the children in camera, eleven witnesses, and the depositions of two additional witnesses were admitted into evidence. Most of the testimony focused on Dr. Rankin’s mental and emotional stability and issues relating to his career. The family court granted the husband’s motion, designating him as the primary residential custodian, granting the wife visitation, recalculating the child support obligations of the parties, and addressing the issue of health care expenses and insurance. The wife filed a motion to alter, amend or vacate, which was denied. The wife appealed.

On appeal, the wife argued 1) the trial court erred in evaluating the evidence before it and that its ruling was contrary to the weight of the evidence presented, 2) the trial court erred in failing to grant her motion to alter, amend, or vacate the prior order, and 3) her husband failed to comply with KRS 403.350, depriving the family court of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court formally addressed the third argument only, although the Court gratuitously spoke as to the merits of the case.
The issue of subject matter jurisdiction can be raised at any time. It cannot be waived or obtained by consent. Therefore, the Court reviewed the issue, even though it had not been preserved for appeal. First, the husband failed to file a separate affidavit along with his petition, as required by KRS 403.350. However, the Court found that his verified petition met the requirement of being an “affidavit” pursuant to CR 43.13. Next, the Court found that the trial court abused its discretion in finding that adequate cause existed to consider the requested modification based solely upon the face of the pleadings. The husband’s petition contained only vague and conclusory allegations that did not rise to the level required by KRS 403.350 to justify a finding of adequate cause. As such, the Court reversed and remanded the matter with instructions for the family court to return residential primary custody to the wife and to recalculate child support and health insurance accordingly.
The Court then gratuitously addressed the merits of the case. The Court found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the children’s environment endangered them, that the harm caused by modification would be outweighed by the advantages of such a change, or that the best interests of the children would be served by a change in custody. The Court also found that the family court ignored the wishes of the children as the family court made no mention of their desires in its ruling.

Taylor, Judge, Dissented.
The issue of whether there was adequate cause to consider the request for modification of custody is substantive, not jurisdictional, and was not preserved for appellate review. Therefore, the Court should not review the issue, nor substitute its judgment on this issue for that of the family court. Based on the totality of the evidence presented, the family court’s findings were not clearly erroneous.

Digested by Sarah Jost Nielson, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates