This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In re: Joseph T. Appelhof, Jr.,
Bernadette M. Haack,
Filed April 1, 2003
Le Sueur County District Court
File No. F900822
Christopher E. Morris, O’Neill, Traxler, Zard, Neisen & Morris, Ltd., 222 East Main Street, P.O. Box 105, New Prague, MN 56071 (for appellant)
Gary Monahan, Monahan Law Office, 419 North Main Street, Le Sueur, MN 56058 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Stoneburner, Judge.
Appellant Joseph T. Appelhof, Jr. and respondent Bernadette Haack are the parents of a six-year-old girl. Appelhof brought this petition seeking custody of the child. Following a hearing at which testimony was taken from numerous witnesses, the district court issued an order granting sole physical custody to Haack. The court thereafter denied Appelhof’s motion for a new trial, but amended several findings relating to the visitation schedule and placed restrictions on Appelhof’s contact with the child during times when he does not have visitation.
On appeal, Appelhof only challenges the sufficiency of the findings supporting the award of custody to Haack and the district court’s rejection of the guardian ad litem’s recommendation that he receive custody of the child. Because the district court made findings on the relevant best interest factors and because those findings are reasonably supported by the record and not clearly erroneous, we affirm.
Our review of a district court’s custody decision is narrow and “limited to whether the [district] court abused its discretion by making findings unsupported by the evidence or by improperly applying the law.” Silbaugh v. Silbaugh, 543 N.W.2d 639, 641 (Minn. 1996) (quotation omitted); see Lemcke v. Lemcke, 623 N.W.2d 916, 919 (Minn. App. 2001), review denied (Minn. June 19, 2001). The overriding concern in custody determinations is the best interests of the child, which requires consideration of the factors listed in Minn. Stat. § 518.17, subd. 1(a) (2002).
Appelhof challenges the district court’s findings as clearly erroneous and its decision granting custody to Haack as contrary to the recommendation of the guardian ad litem. Examination of the guardian’s report indicates that her decision was most influenced by the child’s visibly close relationship with her father, compared to her relationship with her mother and her step-siblings. The guardian also stressed that on many occasions, the child expressed a clear desire to live with her father. Notes taken by the child’s psychologists, which are quoted by Appelhof in his informal brief on appeal, confirm that the child appeared to have a close relationship with her father and wanted to live with him, while the child’s relationship with her mother and step-siblings was more distant.
While a district court must consider an expert’s recommendation, it has discretion to reject that recommendation, even without explanation, if the court makes detailed findings that reflect a complete analysis of the best interest factors. Rutanen v. Olson, 475 N.W.2d 100, 104 (Minn. App. 1999); see also Rogge v. Rogge, 509 N.W.2d 163, 166 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Jan. 28, 1994). Once a custody decision is supported with “defensible findings that address relevant best-interests factors,” there is little room for this court to question the district court’s balancing of those factors. Vangsness v. Vangsness, 607 N.W.2d 468, 477 (Minn. App. 2000).
Here, the district court acknowledged the guardian ad litem’s report and recommendation. While the court did not make a specific finding indicating why it chose to reject the guardian’s recommendation, the court made detailed findings on all of the best interest factors. In particular, the court found that the child is six years old and not of sufficient age to express a reasonable preference. The court further found that both parties share an intimate relationship with the child and acknowledged that the child “talks primarily about the things she does when she is with [her father] and does not elaborate on what she does when she is with [her mother] and her half siblings.” The court characterized the differences between the parties’ relationships with the child by finding that Appelhof “engages in more extracurricular type activities with the minor child, whereas, [Haack] and her other children engage in more day-to-day activities with the child.” These findings suggest that the district court lent less weight to the child’s stated preference and her close relationship to her father than did the guardian.
Instead, the district court focused on other factors to support its decision, including Haack’s more stable home and employment history, versus Appelhof’s history of unemployment and lack of a permanent residence. The court also placed great emphasis on Haack’s good mental and physical health, versus Appelhof’s prior problems with anger management and physical abuse of his other daughter, who is 10 years old and lives with her mother. Because the district court’s findings are “defensible” and supported by evidence in the record, we cannot question the court’s balancing of these best interest factors to favor awarding custody to Haack.
Finally, the district court made a specific finding that it “had the opportunity to gauge the demeanor of both parties.” The court stated that it drew the following inferences and conclusion from its observations regarding the parenting strengths and abilities of each party:
The Court is struck by the manner in which [Haack] presented herself as a parent: sense and air of control, comfort, ease and confidence. This is borne out by her past parenting, work history and life style in general. The Court is less able to gauge the manner, parenting or personal, of [Appelhof].
As an appellate court, we must defer to credibility determinations made by the district court. Sefkow v. Sefkow, 427 N.W.2d 203, 210 (Minn. 1988). Because the district court’s findings are not clearly erroneous and adequately consider the appropriate statutory factors, we must affirm the court’s determination that the child’s best interests are served by an award of primary physical custody to Haack.