This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re: Melody Starr Stier, petitioner,
James Robert Stier,
Filed July 2, 2002
Mower County District Court
File No. F800617
William Bodensteiner, 309 South Main Street, Austin, MN 55912 (for respondent)
Scott Richardson, Richardson Law Office, 132 Third Avenue Northwest, Austin, MN 55912 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Willis, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellant-father contests the district court’s grant of sole physical custody of the parties’ minor children to respondent-mother. Father argues that the district court abused its discretion by finding that (1) two of the factors used in determining the children’s best interests only slightly favor father and (2) father attempted to influence the children’s custodial choice. He also argues that the district court inappropriately considered father’s alcohol use. Finally, father asserts that the district court abused its discretion by failing to consider adequately the children’s stated geographic preference. Because the district court did not abuse its discretion, we affirm.
In April 2000, mother petitioned for marital dissolution. During their marriage, the parties lived in Grand Meadow; they have two children, who were eight and eleven years old at the time of the dissolution. While awaiting resolution of the dissolution, the parties initially shared physical custody, but mother moved with the children to Rochester, which is approximately 25 miles from Grand Meadow.
The custody evaluator’s written report concluded that the children were not of sufficient maturity to express a meaningful parental preference. But at the child-custody proceeding, the evaluator’s testimony suggested that the children were mature enough to express a preference for attending school in Grand Meadow.
On August 9, 2001, the district court granted the dissolution, giving sole physical custody of the children to mother. The district court found that the children had expressed no clear custodial preference.
Father moved for a new trial or amended findings. The district court denied father’s motion for a new trial but amended its findings to provide, in part, that
[n]o clear preference as to custodial parent has been expressed by the children, but the children have clearly expressed a desire to remain in Grand Meadow. While this may represent an expression of parental preference by the 11 year old for the [father,] the Court is concerned about the maturity level of both children and the influence that the father has manifested in talking to the children regarding a potential change of residence and school to Rochester, in the event of custody in [mother]. This [ ] factor favors [father], but is considered to be of somewhat lessened importance due to the above concerns.
This appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
The district court has broad discretion to determine custody matters. Wopata v. Wopata, 498 N.W.2d 478, 481 (Minn. App. 1993). An appellate court may not reverse a custody determination unless the district court abused its discretion by making findings unsupported by the evidence or by improperly applying the law. Pikula v. Pikula, 374 N.W.2d 705, 710 (Minn. 1985).
The ultimate consideration in determining custody is the best interests of the child. Id. at 711; see Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1 (2000) (listing best-interests factors). When determining custody, the district court must consider the best interests of the child, which requires consideration of all of the statutory factors listed in Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a), that are relevant to the case. See Minn. Stat.§ 518.17, subd. 1(a). The district court must make detailed findings on each of the relevant factors and explain how those factors led to its conclusions and to the determination of the best interests of the child. Id. But while the district court must consider all the factors that pertain to the best interests of the children, the court is not required to make a specific finding on each one. Abbott v. Abbott, 481 N.W.2d 864, 868 (Minn. App. 1992).
A district court’s findings must be sustained unless they are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. Where the evidence supports the conclusions reached by the district court, the appellate court must affirm, even if the evidence supports other conclusions as well. See Sefkow v. Sefkow, 427 N.W.2d 203, 211 (Minn. 1988).
A. Adjustment to home, school, and community.
Father contends that the district court erred by finding that the factor of adjustment to home, school, and community in determining the best interests of the children only slightly favors him. See Minn. Stat. § 518.17 subd. 1(a)(6). The district court found that, although the children “are well adjusted to living in * * * Grand Meadow,” they also “appear to be adaptable and gregarious and have formed friendships in Rochester.” Because the evidence supports the finding, it was not clear error for the court to find that this factor only slightly favors father.
B. Length of time in stable environment.
Father also asserts that the district court erred by finding that the factor of the length of time spent by the children in a stable environment and the desirability of continuity only slightly favors him. See Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a)(7).
The district court determined that this factor only slightly favors father because of the children’s adaptability. The court found that
[t]he children have lived in Grand Meadow and their family home continuously for the seven years that they have lived in the state. It is obviously preferable to have continuity of the children’s environment, but no evidence was presented that suggested any substantial or lasting harm in the event they would be required to move. The children’s experience with part-time living in Rochester demonstrates their adaptability and capability of adjustment in this respect. This factor slightly favors [father].
Because the continuity of children’s environment is less important when the children are adaptable and capable of adjustment, we cannot say that it was clear error for the district court to find that this factor only slightly favors father.
C. Father’s influence on children’s custodial choice.
Father claims that it was clear error for the district court to find that he attempted to influence the children’s custodial choice because there is “absolutely no testimony to support this position.” But mother testified that father told the children that, if mother moved out of town, she “did not really love them.” Additionally, mother stated by affidavit that father made the older child cry by telling him that father “would not be able to see the children very often in the future.” And father testified to a conversation he had with the older child in which father said that if the child lived with his mother in Rochester, the child would have to commute to Grand Meadow from Rochester on a regular basis and that was something he “wouldn’t want to put [the child] through.” Viewing this record in the light most favorable to the district court’s findings, as we must under Frauenshuh v. Giese, 599 N.W.2d 153, 156 (Minn. 1999), we cannot say that the district court clearly erred by finding that father attempted to influence his children’s custodial choice.
Father also argues that the district court inappropriately considered father’s alcohol use, arguing that mother’s allegations about his drinking were contested and that other evidence supports father’s assertion that his drinking does not create a problem. Father does not contest any finding or conclusion made by the district court. Rather, he focuses on a comment in the district court’s memorandum that the court has concerns about father’s drinking habits. Nothing in the record shows that this concern played any part in the court’s custody determination. And even if the court’s concern was not well-founded, father has shown no prejudice and any error in making the observation was harmless. See Minn. R. Civ. P. 61 (requiring harmless error to be ignored).
Father also asserts that the district court abused its discretion by failing to adequately consider the children’s stated geographic preference, citing Maxfield v. Maxfield for the proposition that a child’s expression of geographic preference is in fact an expression of custodial preference and should be strongly weighed in the custody evaluation. See Maxfield v. Maxfield, 452 N.W.2d 219 (Minn. 1990).
In Maxfield, the mother separated from the father and took their four children to Pennsylvania. 452 N.W.2d at 219. Once in Pennsylvania, the oldest child, then ten years old, felt picked on and was unhappy with his mother’s plans to marry. Id. at 220. A psychologist determined that the child “definitely preferred a small-town environment and life style, which could be interpreted as the boy’s preference to live with his father.” Id. The supreme court stated that “geographical preference would seem to determine custodial preference, a fact of which [the child] could not have been aware.” Id. at 223.
A child’s reasonable custodial preference is one of the statutory factors to consider in determining a child’s best interests. Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a)(2). In Minnesota, when a child is an older teenager, that child’s custodial preference is an “overwhelming consideration in determining the child’s custody.” Ross v. Ross, 477 N.W.2d 753, 756 (Minn. App. 1991); see also Johnson v. Johnson, 424 N.W.2d 85, 86, 88 (Minn. App. 1988) (explaining that district court may give considerable weight to preference of children as young as eight years old). But in determining a child’s best interests, a district court “may not use one factor to the exclusion of all others.” Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a).
Here, the district court found that the factor of the children’s custodial preference favors father but that the factor was of lessened importance because of the court’s concerns about the children’s maturity and father’s attempts to influence the children’s custodial preference. It is undisputed that the children stated a preference to attend school in Grand Meadow, not to live there. Additionally, the district court did not find that the children had expressed a custodial preference; it found that the school preference “may represent an expression of parental preference” by the older child, only, to live with his father. And to the extent that the children’s school preference can be interpreted as a geographic or custodial choice, the district court’s finding that father attempted to influence the children’s custodial preference was a further ground for the court not to make this factor an overwhelming consideration in determining custody. See Roehrdanz v. Roehrdanz, 438 N.W.2d 687, 691 (Minn. App. 1989) (citation omitted) (holding that the custodial-preference factor “should be given weight to the extent that it * * * is not the product of manipulation”), review denied (Minn. June 21, 1989). The district court did not give inadequate weight to the children’s custodial preference and therefore did not abuse its discretion with regard to this factor.