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In re Marriage of Laidlaw

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

February 5, 2018

In the Matter of the Marriage of: JOHN WILLIAM LAIDLAW, Appellant, and DANAE DIANA LAIDLAW, now known as DANAE DIANA ZOELLIN, Respondent.

          DWYER, J.

         In this domestic relations relocation action, John Laidlaw appeals from the trial court's orders entering a parenting plan and ordering Laidlaw to pay some of Danae Zoellin's attorney fees and costs. On appeal, Laidlaw contends that the trial court erred by reducing his residential time with his daughter. Laidlaw also contends that the trial court erred by ordering him to pay some of Danae Zoellin's attorney fees and costs and by ordering wage garnishment in the event that he defaulted on that obligation. Finding no error in the issues warranting review, we affirm.


         John Laidlaw and Danae Zoellin were married on January 3, 2009. Together the parties have one child-T.L. Following a trial, Laidlaw and Zoellin were divorced on August 2, 2013. Judge Sean O'Donnell entered an order concluding that Laidlaw had engaged in a series of acts that constituted domestic violence and had engaged in abusive use of conflict. Judge O'Donnell also entered a parenting plan pursuant to the marital dissolution. The parenting plan incorporated the findings and conclusions concerning domestic violence as a basis for certain restrictions imposed against Laidlaw.[1] Judge O'Donnell also ordered Laidlaw to pay $30, 000 of Zoellin's attorney fees.[2]

         Laidlaw and Zoellin lived in Issaquah when T.L. was born. Prior to the dissolution of their marriage, Zoellin entered an address confidentiality program, moving multiple times out of fear for her safety. At the time the final dissolution order was entered, Zoellin lived in Issaquah. In October 2014, Zoellin began a new job in Seattle. Zoellin commuted from Issaquah to Seattle for one and a half years before giving notice of her intent to relocate with the child in Seattle.

         Laidlaw opposed the relocation. In March 2016, Laidlaw filed a motion objecting to the relocation and seeking to modify the 2013 parenting plan. Laidlaw's proposed parenting plan removed the restrictions contained in the 2013 parenting plan and made him the primary residential parent. In April 2016, the trial court entered an order permitting Zoellin to temporarily relocate with the child to Seattle pending trial. Zoellin moved to Seattle in July 2016.

         Following trial, the trial court entered an order permitting Zoellin to relocate with T.L.[3] The trial court found that (1) there were no agreements between the parents concerning moving with the child, (2) relocation would not affect the relationship between the child and either parent, (3) the history of domestic violence continued to affect the parents' relationship, and (4) permitting relocation would not impact the child's future, quality of life, resources or opportunities as a result of the move. The trial court also found that Laidlaw had failed to rebut the presumption that the benefit of the change to the child and the relocating parent outweighed the detrimental effect of the relocation. Finally, the trial court found that, in light of the relocation, there were valid reasons to alter the parenting plan and that such changes were in the best interest of the child.

         After considering the financial affidavits and declarations submitted by both parties, the trial court found that Zoellin needed financial assistance to pay her attorney fees and costs and that Laidlaw had the ability to pay those fees and costs. The trial court ordered Laidlaw to pay $15, 360[4] of Zoellin's attorney fees and costs after finding that such an amount was reasonable. The trial court also ordered the Washington State Division of Child Support to collect $1, 000 each month via immediate wage garnishment should Laidlaw fail to satisfy the judgment within 90 days.

         The parenting plan entered by the trial court incorporated the findings of domestic violence and abusive use of conflict outlined in the dissolution and 2013 parenting plan.[5] As with the 2013 parenting plan, the 2016 parenting plan contained detailed residential provisions concerning the residential time schedule. In light of the relocation, the total residential time allocated to Laidlaw in the 2016 parenting plan is less than the total time allocated in the 2013 parenting plan.[6] Laidlaw appeals from the entry of the 2016 parenting plan and related orders.


         Laidlaw first contends that the trial court erred by entering the 2016 parenting plan. This is so, he asserts, because the trial court failed to make any findings to support its decision to alter the residential schedule. We disagree.


         We review a trial court's decision concerning the welfare of children for an abuse of discretion. In re Marriage of Homer, 151 Wn.2d 884, 893, 93 P.3d 124 (2004). A court abuses its discretion when its decision is manifestly unreasonable or based upon untenable grounds or reasons. Salas v. Hi-Tech Erectors, 168 Wn.2d 664, 668-69, 230 P.3d 583 (2010). "A court's decision is manifestly unreasonable if it is outside the range of acceptable choices, given the facts and the applicable legal standard; it is based on untenable grounds if the factual findings are unsupported by the record; it is based on untenable reasons if it is based on an incorrect standard or the facts do not meet the requirements of the correct standard." In re Marriage of Littlefield, 133 Wn.2d 39, 47, 940 P.2d 1362 (1997). Unchallenged findings of fact are verities on appeal and unchallenged conclusions of law become the law of the case. Rush v. Blackburn, 190 Wn.App. 945, 956, 361 P.3d 217 (2015).

         The child relocation act (CRA), RCW 26.09.405-.560, provides certain notice requirements and standards for changing the primary residence of a child who is the subject of a court order regarding residential time. "If a person entitled to residential time or visitation objects to a child's relocation, the person seeking to move the child may not relocate the child without court approval." In re Marriage of McNaught, 189 Wn.App. 545, 553, 359 P.3d 811 (2015). The CRA imposes a rebuttable presumption that relocation will be permitted and requires trial courts to consider 11 factors when determining whether the detrimental effects of relocation outweigh the benefits to both the child and the parent seeking to relocate. RCW 26.09.520. These considerations include any prior agreements between the parents, the effect of the relocation on the child's physical, educational, and emotional development, the quality of life and opportunities available to the child before and after relocation, and any alternatives to relocation. RCW 26.09.520(2), (3), (6), (7), (9).

         A court order permitting or restraining the relocation of a child may necessitate modification of an existing parenting plan. A trial court's ability to modify a parenting plan is controlled by statute. McDevitt v. Davis, 181 Wn.App. 765, 769, 326 P.3d 865 (2014).

         RCW 26.09.260 sets forth the predicates for modification of a parenting plan. Pursuant to that statute, modification is generally prohibited absent a finding that "a substantial change has occurred in the circumstances of the child or the nonmoving party and that the modification is in the best interest of the child and is necessary to serve the best interests of the child." RCW 26.09.260(1). In addition, modification of a parenting plan generally requires one of the following: (a) the assent of both parents, (b) the integration of the child into the family of the petitioner with the consent of the other parent, (c) a finding that the child's present environment is detrimental to the child's physical, mental, or emotional health and the harm likely to be caused by a change of environment is outweighed by the advantage of a change to the child, or (d) parental noncompliance with the residential time provisions in the parenting plan that has resulted in the nonmoving parent being held in contempt of court at least twice within three years. RCW 26.09.260(2).

         But an exception to the statutory predicates set forth in RCW 26.09.260(1) and (2) exists when modification is based on a court's order permitting relocation. Modification of a parenting plan based on ...

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