June 9, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A Nevada dad, Shane Peterson is fighting a trial judge’s ruling allowing his ex-wife to move to Sweden with their two children. From where I sit, it looks like a losing battle. My guess is that, if he ever sees his kids again, it’ll be a miracle. Read about it here. (Las Vegas Review Journal, 6/7/14).
In the process, we learn a bit about Nevada law as it relates to the custodial parent relocating with the children in a way that effectively thwarts their relationship with the non-custodial parent. And of course we notice things about Mom’s behavior that somehow escaped the attention of the Family Court Judge, William Gonzalez.
Shane met Cecilia when he was in school in Germany. She’s Swedish and he’s American. They were married in Sweden in 2005, but soon moved to Nevada where he had a job with the Environmental Protection Agency. Cecilia was a lawyer in Sweden and managed to work in a law office here in the States. Their first daughter was born in 2006 and the second in 2010. By 2013, Shane and Cecilia’s relationship had soured and he filed for divorce saying he believed it would be the best thing for the kids.
But unknown to him, Cecilia apparently knew a thing or two about Nevada family law. Shane didn’t even hire a lawyer and the two agreed on everything, like child support and alimony, including Cecilia’s having primary custody of their girls. The divorce was granted in January of 2013, and Cecila immediately announced her desire to move back to Sweden with the children.
As she doubtless knew, Nevada law doesn’t provide much of an impediment to a custodial mother who wants to relocate, although apparently a case in which she wants to move out of the country is one of first impression for the state Supreme Court. Judge Gonzalez granted her motion to move to Sweden.
In November, less than a year after the divorce, Family Court Judge William Gonzalez granted Cecilia Peterson’s request for permission to relocate with the girls to Sweden, her birthplace. They left two days before Christmas.
“So mid-school year he’s allowing these kids to be relocated to a foreign country — 6,000 miles away, nine time zones and about a 20-hour flight,” Shane Peterson said in a recent interview at his Henderson home.
Shane Peterson hasn’t seen his daughters, 7 and 4, since they left more than five months ago.
Here’s Nevada law on move-aways by the custodial parent:
Before granting Cecilia Peterson’s request to relocate, Gonzalez looked at what he called the “pre-eminent case” on the matter: Schwartz v. Schwartz.
The 1991 Nevada Supreme Court case involved a request by a custodial father to move with his children from Nevada to Pennsylvania, where his family lived. A judge granted the request, and the mother appealed.
According to the state Supreme Court decision, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling:
“In determining the issue of removal, the court must first find whether the custodial parent has demonstrated that an actual advantage will be realized by both the children and the custodial parent in moving to a location so far removed from the current residence that weekly visitation by the noncustodial parent is virtually precluded.”
If the custodial parent satisfies this threshold requirement, according to the opinion, the court then must weigh other factors, including “whether the custodial parent’s motives are honorable.”
In a later case, Jones v. Jones, the state Supreme Court clarified its opinion in Schwartz, ruling that an “actual advantage” requires only a showing of a “sensible, good faith reason for the move.”
In other words, it doesn’t take much to get Mom a pass to take the kids “6,000 miles away, nine time zones and about a 20-hour flight.” And that’s where we start to take a closer look at exactly what Gonzalez could have seen but apparently didn’t. In the first place, Cecilia had obviously planned her departure for a long time, even before the divorce was final. That is, from the get-go, she intended to remove Shane from the lives of their children.
Now to some, that would evidence less than “honorable motives,” but Gonzalez missed the obvious. Second, Shane supposedly has parental rights; he supposedly has the right to see his kids periodically. Indeed, they’re supposed to show up in Nevada within the week, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for them. But now that Cecilia and his children are in Sweden, what’s Shane supposed to do to enforce his visitation rights? Needless to say, neither Judge Gonzalez nor any other Nevada judge has any jurisdiction over Cecilia now. So of course she’s supposed to put the kids on the plane to the United States, but what happens if she refuses?
Well, Shane gets to hire a lawyer in Sweden and try to get the order enforced, at which point, Cecilia claims domestic violence and child abuse by him and the all-too-common scene plays out.
But his lawyers argue that Gonzalez failed to address the “jurisdictional problem” created by the international move. Nevada has no jurisdiction over Cecilia Peterson in Sweden, according to the appeal brief, and Shane Peterson has no way to enforce his visitation rights.
Shane Peterson pays $1,452 a month in child support, but the judge’s order allows him to deduct up to $2,000 a year to cover the cost of a visit to Sweden. He also pays his ex-wife $375 a month in spousal support.
“I pay almost $2,000 a month to someone who took my kids 6,000 miles away and is reluctant to let me have even Skype contact,” he lamented.
What happens if Shane doesn’t pay the woman who took his children to another continent? Well, the family court in Nevada certainly has continuing jurisdiction of the case and him. So one missed check and the full power of the Nevada state government’s child support enforcement bureaucracy is just a phone call away for Cecilia.
In short, Shane Peterson is in a pickle and one I suspect he’ll only get out of in 2028 when his younger daughter turns 18. By then I predict, she’ll barely know he’s alive.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about this case and indeed so many move-away cases is the complete absence of any notion on the part of the law or the judge that fathers are important to children, that Shane Peterson’s daughters need him in their lives. After all, the Nevada Supreme court understands that, where move-aways are at issue, “visitation by the noncustodial parent is virtually precluded.” That is, move-aways, particularly those involving great distances, are a virtual death sentence for the father/child relationship.
So we’d expect the court to allow a custodial parent to move away with the kids only in the most extreme cases of need. If we truly understand the importance of fathers to children, the law would reflect it in its jurisprudence on parental relocation. But no, Nevada does the opposite; it makes it as easy as possible for a custodial parent to cut the other out of a child’s life by requiring only a “sensible, good faith reason for the move.”
On its face, the law in Nevada utterly misunderstands the importance of fathers to children. Cecilia Peterson understood that all too well.
And, unless I miss my bet, another father bids adios to his children and, even though they’re as yet too young to grasp what’s happening, they to him.
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