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Application of a presumption favoring the relocating custodial parent should not be applied in determining whether there has been a material change in circumstances.
Appellant, Jeffrey Arnott (Father), challenged the district court's order denying his petition for modification of the parties' divorce decree, which granted primary physical custody of the parties' two daughters to Appellee, Paula ("Polly") Arnott (Mother). Father sought modification of custody after Mother gave notice of her intention to relocate to Virginia with the children. Relying on the Court's decision in Watt v. Watt, 971 P.2d 608, 614 (Wyo. 1999), the district court applied a "strong presumption in favor of the right of a custodial parent to relocate with her children" and determined that Father had failed to establish a material change in circumstances warranting an analysis of whether modification would be in the best interests of the children. On appeal, Father contended that the decision in Watt should be overturned. He asserted that application of that precedent undermines his constitutionally protected parenting rights and the state's interest in promoting the best interests of the children.
Should the application of a presumption favoring the relocating custodial parent be applied in determining whether there has been a material change in circumstances?
The court held that the prohibition against considering relocation as a factor contributing to a material change in circumstances did not properly account for the minority time parent's right to associate with his family, the child's right to familial association, or the state's paramount concern for promoting the best interests of the children. A relocation by the primary physical custodian could constitute a material change in circumstances sufficient to warrant consideration of the best interests of the children. To the extent that conflicted with the holding in Watt v. Watt, 971 P.2d 608, 614 (Wyo. 1999), Watt was overruled. Based on the facts, the mother's relocation to Virginia, over 2,000 miles away from the father, constituted a material change in circumstances. In light of the district court's emphasis on the presumption, which no longer applied, the supreme court was unable to determine how the absence of such a presumption would have impacted the district court's decision.