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Woods v. Woods, 2013 Ark. App. 448: Custody and Alimony

The Arkansas Court of Appeals issued its ruling in the case of Woods v. Woods on August 28, 2013. It's an interesting case as it illustrates the way the Court of Appeals reviews factual determinations by the Circuit Courts in divorce and custody cases.

In Woods, the mother appealed a grant of custody to the father and also challenged the court's decision not to award her alimony.

The Court of Appeals rejected both points and upheld the trial court's determination. As to the custody issue, the court held:

In reviewing child-custody cases, we consider the evidence de novo, but we will not reverse the trial court’s findings unless they are clearly erroneous or clearly against the preponderance of the evidence.  A finding is clearly against the preponderance of the evidence when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. Magee, supra. We also give special deference to the superior position of the trial court to evaluate and judge the credibility of the witnesses in child-custody cases. We know of no cases in which the superior position, ability, and opportunity of the trial court to observe the parties carry as great a weight as those involving children. In custody cases, the primary consideration is the welfare and best interest of the child, while other considerations are merely secondary.

The court held that, contrary to the mother's assertion, the trial court had not focused improperly on future events, as opposed to past performance, when evaluating the best interests of the child.

But probably the most illuminating part of the case opinion is found in this quote:

The court was confronted with two parents who obviously cared equally for the wellbeing of their son. Josh had a stable job, albeit with unusual hours, while Courtney had not yet found employment utilizing her degree, although she had prospects for such a position. On the whole, we conclude that the circuit court was in the best position to evaluate these matters and make a credibility determination.

This is really the crux of the matter. Attorneys know that it's far easier to win a case at trial than on appeal, absent some major blunder on the part of the trial judge, for just this reason: appellate courts give significant deference to the perspective of the person who was present while the case was being put on by the parties and their counsel - i.e., the trial judge.