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Alcohol Abuse and Parenting Conditions

Clarkston Legal March 30, 2015

Earlier this month, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed alcohol abuse and parenting conditions in a rare published opinion; rare in that parenting time appeals do not get published very often. This case, Kaeb v Kaeb, comes to us from Ottawa County Family Court and sheds some light on the proper way in which to conduct an evidentiary hearing seeking a modification of the parenting schedule.

Like many cases we see, the parents in Kaeb were litigious, going back to court following the entry of their judgment of divorce, in order to modify their custody and parenting arrangements. Mother alleged Father was an alcohol abuser and compulsive gambler; she alleged this conduct affected his ability to conduct proper parenting time.

Apparently, at his lowest point during their divorce proceedings and at the nadir of his alcohol abuse, Father agreed to a small amount of supervised parenting time. As he addressed his demons over time and climbed onto the sobriety wagon, he eased into increased contact with his minor children. Eventually, Father sought to modify his parenting schedule by removing the conditions that he attend regular AA meetings.

When such cases reach a critical juncture, the family court often holds an evidentiary hearing where each side can put evidence [in the form of testimony and documents] into the record to support their contentions. Only evidence about events and circumstances that occurred since the entry of the court’s last parenting or custody order is relevant and thus admissible.

Accordingly, in support of his motion, Father submitted a psychological evaluation and a letter of discharge from his therapist. While Father testified that he was in compliance with the court’s prior order by addressing his alcohol abuse and attending AA meetings, he also may have been able to take advantage of a therapeutic alliance with his counselor.

Shortly after the entry of the court’s prior order placing conditions on his parenting time, for example, Father generated a letter from his therapist stating there was no clinical need for him to attend regular therapy sessions or AA meetings. Also, Father did not produce AA “sign-in” sheets at the hearing, only his self-serving testimony about attending the meetings.

The family court was troubled by this sketchy record, concluding that Father was in compliance with its previous orders. But the court did not find that Father satisfied the evidentiary burden of demonstrating a proper cause or a “change in circumstances” to justify any modification of previously imposed conditions to his parenting time. Further, the family court sanctioned Father for attorney fees in bringing what it characterized as a frivolous motion.

In reversing the family court, the Court of Appeals noted that this case did not involve a change in custody or a change to the established custodial environment. Rather, the appeals court viewed Father’s burden in the context of modifying a condition to his parenting time.

In doing so, the court adopted a more flexible approach to the analysis, holding that Father’s submission of his psychological evaluation and his therapist’s discharge letter supported the requisite “change in circumstances” under this flexible approach. Accordingly, the attorney fee sanctions ordered against Father were reversed.