Williams v. Bittel, Ky COA, Custody Modification and Stay of Foreign Judgment

Williams v. Bittel

PUBLISHED: AFFIRMING
HARRIS, SENIOR JUDGE, PRESIDING; ACREE AND CLAYTON CONCUR
COUNTY: DAVIESS

 

Child’s Aunt and Uncle (“the Williamses”) appealed from TC’s order denying their petition to modify custody of Child and cross-appealed from TC’s order denying their motion to reconsider the petition. Fiance of Child’s deceased mother (“Bittel”) appealed from TC’s order denying his petition to modify custody and to stay a foreign judgment.

 

These appeals presented CA with three issues of first impression:

(1) Whether an out-of-state adoption preempts KY custody orders;

(2) Whether a de facto custodian who is granted joint custody rights must continuously meet the de facto custodial requirements in order to maintain standing in custody proceedings; and

(3) Whether TC could properly condition its deference to the GA courts on Child’s custody and visitation by providing that its prior orders regarding Bittel’s joint custodianship and visitation with Child are not affected. 

 

FACTS:

Child’s biological father never had contact with her.  Mother began living with Bittel while pregnant with child, and after Child was born, they functioned as a family unit.  When Child was 18 mos., Mother died. 

The Williamses assumed the responsibilities of caring for Child, but Bittel remained extremely involved in her life and even moved in with the Williamses.  The Williamses later asked Bittel to leave their home.

When Child was 2, Bittel petitioned for custody of Child.  First, TC found that the Williamses and Bittel were de facto custodians of Child.  Then, both parties were granted joint custody. The Williamses were designated primary residential custodians with liberal visitation given to Bittel. Neither the Williamses nor Bittel appealed. 

When Child was 8, the Williamses notified Bittel that they intended to move to Georgia. Bittel ultimately moved for specific visitation.  The Williamses then filed a motion to modify custody.  The motion was denied based upon the Williamses’ failure to support their motion with an affidavit, as required by KRS 403.350.  TC granted Bittel’s motion for specific visitation and carefully outlined a visitation schedule. TC denied the Williamses motion to reconsider their petition for custody modification.  The Williamses appealed this ruling. 

During the pendency of the custody action in KY, the Williamses adopted Child in Georgia. Bittel attempted to intervene in the adoption, but GA law only allows blood relatives standing to intervene in adoption cases, and he failed.  The Williamses filed the GA adoption decree as a foreign judgment in KY. Bittel moved to stay the foreign judgment. TC upheld Bittel’s rights as joint custodian of Child, despite the adoption, but deferred to GA as the more convenient forum.  Bittel appealed and the Williamses cross-appealed this order.

 

I. Interstate Custody Dispute: Does the GA adoption divest KY of custody jurisdiction? No.

 

The Williamses argued that because KRS 403.802 specifically exempts adoptions from the UCCJEA’s concept of “exclusive, continuing jurisdiction,” jurisdiction of all custody proceedings in this action was relinquished to the GA courts because of the adoption.  CA noted that while the UCCJEA does not apply to adoptions, Bittel never claimed that KY should have jurisdiction over the adoption. CA held that exclusive, continuing jurisdiction of the custody matters remains in KY as long as Bittel resides in KY and maintains a significant relationship with Child, so that the GA adoption did not invalidate or alter TC’s custody orders.  CA noted that the Williamses “successfully circumvented the spirit of the law. Their actions create the precise problems that the UCCJEA and the PKPA attempted to avoid; viz., interstate custody disputes and competition. This loophole cannot be closed by our Court, only by legislative action.”

 

II. De Facto Custodianship: Must Bittel continuously meet the de facto custodian requirements in order to maintain standing in custody proceedings? No.

 

The Williamses argued that Bittel never met the standard for de facto custodians.  CA held that while Bittel’s de facto custodian status was the basis for the TC’s award of joint custody, his standing to participate in the custody proceedings was derived from his joint custodian status. He need not maintain the de facto custodian status in order to maintain standing as a joint custodian as such would place an unfair burden upon non-residential joint custodian.

 

III. The Inconvenient Forum Issue: Could TC properly condition its deference to GA courts on custody and visitation issues by providing that its prior orders regarding Bittel’s joint custodianship and visitation are not affected? “Yes.”

 

CA concluded that TC’s imposition of this condition was allowed by statute, but noted that GA courts may not fully enforce the “previous orders” of the TC. 

 

Digested by Michelle Eisenmenger MapesDiana L. Skaggs + Associates