Michael Landwehr seeks review of an unpublished decision by the court of appeals affirming a decision of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, the Honorable William Sosnay, that modified the physical placement schedule of his two children. The circuit court granted the modification for summer placement, but denied Michael's motion to modify physical placement during the school year. The court of appeals affirmed the circuit court's placement decision. Landwehr v. Landwehr, No. 2003AP2555, unpublished slip op. (Wis. Ct. App. January 27, 2005).
¶ 2. Michael Landwehr asks this court to find that under the particular facts of this case, the maximization language in Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2. (2003-04)
¶ 3. We conclude that Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2. does not require a court to grant each parent equal placement if the court determines that the placement should be modified. We conclude, therefore, that in making modification determinations, the Wisconsin Statutes direct the circuit court to maximize the amount of time a child spends with his or her parents within an overall placement schedule, taking into account the best interests of the child, the presumption of the status quo under Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1) and (2), the general factors listed in Wis. Stat. § 767.24, and the particular factors listed under § 767.24(5)(am) when relevant to the child. Finally, because we determine that the circuit court properly exercised its discretion in retaining the existing school year placement and increasing the children's placement with Michael during the summer months, we affirm the court of appeals.
¶ 4. The relevant facts are as follows. Michael and Bernadette were divorced on June 20, 2000. They had two children, born in May 1993 and January 1997. The children's placement schedule, established in the Marital Settlement Agreement, was based on the particular schedules of Michael and Bernadette at the time of their divorce.
¶ 5. Shortly after the divorce, Michael stopped working at his then-existing place of employment, the Menasha Corporation, and started his own business, PackX, which became a competitor of Menasha Corporation. Michael's self-employment allowed him to work more flexible hours. Michael also moved within a few minutes of his children's school and the home where his children lived with Bernadette.
¶ 6. On June 24, 2002, Michael petitioned the court to reduce his child support payments
¶ 7. This case presents questions regarding the application of the Wisconsin Statutes to a parent's request for modification of the children's placement schedule. We give deference to the circuit court's decisions regarding the modification of placement under an erroneous exercise of discretion standard of review, Andrew J. N. v. Wendy L. D., 174 Wis.2d 745, 764, 498 N.W.2d 235 (1993),
¶ 9. This case presents a question of statutory interpretation, which we review de novo. State v. Reed, 2005 WI 53, ¶ 13, 280 Wis.2d 68, 695 N.W.2d 315. The purpose of statutory interpretation is to give the statute its full, proper, and intended effect. Id. (citations omitted). We begin with the statute's language because it is assumed that the legislature's intent is expressed in the words it used. State ex rel. Kalal v. Dane County Circuit Court, 2004 WI 58, ¶ 45, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. We refrain from interpreting statutory language in isolation and interpret the language in the context in which it is used in order to avoid absurd or unreasonable results. Id., ¶ 46. In addition, when the plain
¶ 10. This case compels us to clarify the statutory requirements imposed upon a circuit court in modifying a custody placement order. Michael Landwehr asks this court to find that when both parents are available, willing, and able to accommodate equal placement, and when the parents are located near each other, Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2. mandates equal placement because a child's time with his or her parents cannot otherwise be "maximized."
¶ 11. Although this court has not previously examined the meaning of Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2., various published court of appeals decisions have concluded that this statute does not require equal placement. Keller v. Keller, 2002 WI App 161, ¶ 12, 256 Wis.2d 401, 647 N.W.2d 426; Lofthus v. Lofthus, 2004 WI App 65, ¶ 14, 270 Wis.2d 515, 678 N.W.2d 393; Arnold v. Arnold, 2004 WI App 62, ¶ 11, 270 Wis.2d 705, 679 N.W.2d 296. We agree with these conclusions. Our analysis of the plain meaning of Wis. Stat. §§ 767.325 and 767.24(4)(a)2., supported by the statute's legislative history, reveals that the legislature did not intend the term "maximizing" to mean equal placement or equal time.
¶ 12. This case involves a parent's request to substantially modify an existing placement order that
¶ 14. Michael asserts that due to the particular facts and circumstances of his situation—because he now lives a short distance from the children and the children's school and now has a flexible schedule that can accommodate more time with his children—the court should have granted him equal placement. Michael relies on Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5m), which, as stated above, instructs the circuit court to "make its [modification] determination in a manner consistent with 767.24," and the fact that Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2. instructs the courts to maximize the time spent with each parent within the placement schedule. Section § 767.24(4)(a)2. states:
Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2. (emphasis added).
¶ 15. We begin our review by examining the text of the statute. Wisconsin Stats. § 767.24(4)(a)2. contains no language regarding the notion of equal placement. Instead, the legislature used the phrase "maximizes the amount of time." The legislature failed to define what it means to maximize the amount of time a child spends with each parent.
¶ 16. When a statute does not define a term, we examine the ordinary meaning of that term, and rely on
¶ 17. The term "maximizing" is found in the second sentence of subsection 767.24(4)(a)2. The first sentence of the subsection directs that, "[i]n determining the allocation of periods of physical placement, the court shall consider each case on the basis of the factors in sub. (5)(am), subject to sub. (5)(bm)." The circuit court is then instructed to set meaningful periods of physical placement that maximize each parent's time with the children, also taking into account geography and accommodations.
¶ 18. We conclude that the concept of "maximizing" does not supersede the specific considerations explicitly required under this subsection. Although the statute establishes a general directive for a circuit court to make modification determinations consistent with Wis. Stat. § 767.24, which includes "maximiz[ing] the amount of time the child may spend with each parent," this general directive does not trump the other considerations specifically required in the statute. The statute
¶ 19. As a result, the circuit court is required to set a placement schedule that establishes meaningful periods of physical placement and maximizes each parent's time with the child, in the context of the status quo presumption and the 16 factors enumerated in Wis. Stat. § 767.24(5) as applied to the particular facts and circumstances of the child.
¶ 20. Under this statutory scheme, the circuit court is required to take into account all the considerations in making an initial placement decision under Wis. Stat. § 767.24. This, of course, includes the notion of maximizing time with each parent under § 767.24(4)(a)2., but the court must attempt to maximize the children's time with each parent within the context of the various other considerations the court is instructed to contemplate under § 767.24. The term "maximize" does not supersede the trial court's discretion to construct a schedule it determines is in the best interest of the child and otherwise in conformity with the intricate dictates of § 767.24.
¶ 21. This court has previously recognized that "the legislature has clearly and repeatedly expressed the policy that courts are to act in the best interest of children." Holtzman v. Knott, 193 Wis.2d 649, 682, 533 N.W.2d 419 (1995). Had the legislature intended to
¶ 22. Moreover, the legislature itself has explicitly recognized that, with respect to the modification of legal custody and physical placement orders, the phrase "maximizes the amount of time" cannot be equated with the notion of "equal placement." Where the initial order has been in existence for more than two years, the legislature has created two separate rebuttable presumptions, both in favor of the status quo. One presumption applies to situations where a child is originally placed with each parent for substantially equal amounts of time. In these situations, there is a rebuttable presumption that maintaining substantially equal periods of physical placement is in the best interest of the child. Wis. Stat. § 767.325(2)(b). A different presumption applies to situations, like the current case, where the court's original order places a child with one
¶ 23. We therefore conclude that interpreting the term "maximize" to mandate equal placement would be a distortion of the term as it is used within this statutory scheme. The proposed interpretation ignores the additional statutory directives and would allow the "maximizing" principle to trump the statutory emphasis on the child's best interest and other relevant considerations, rendering numerous provisions of the Wisconsin Statutes irrelevant and meaningless.
¶ 24. The legislative history further reinforces the plain language of the statute. Although we need not examine legislative history when we find a statute unambiguous, we occasionally consult the legislative history to demonstrate "how that history supports our interpretation of a statute otherwise clear on its face." Megal Development Corp. v. Shadof, 2005 WI 151, ¶ 22, 286 Wis.2d 105, 705 N.W.2d 645 (citation omitted).
¶ 26. Moreover, the same year the legislature enacted the sweeping changes to Chapter 767, the legislators also rejected a bill that would have eliminated the best interest of the child standard and would have created an equal placement presumption in all cases. See 1999 Senate Bill 107.
¶ 27. In addition, 1999 Wis. Act 9 §§ 3051n-3065di also created Wis. Stat. § 767.24(2), which established a presumption of joint legal custody in the initial placement determination. The fact that the legislature established a presumption of joint legal custody but did not use similar terms in § 767.24(4)(a)2., and instead used the phrase "maximizes the amount of time," demonstrates the legislature did not intend the provisions to have the same meaning. Responsible Use of Rural and Agric. Land (RURAL) v. Public Serv. Comm'n of Wis., 2000 WI 129, ¶ 39, 239 Wis.2d 660, 619 N.W.2d 888 ("If a word or words are used in one subsection but are not used in another subsection, we must conclude that the legislature specifically intended a different meaning.") (citations omitted).
¶ 28. Further, when the legislature modified Chapter 767 in 1999, it chose to retain § 767.325(1)(b)2.b., which creates a presumption of the status quo in modification decisions when the original order granted one parent greater placement to continue the child's physical placement with the parent with whom the child
¶ 29. The legislative history clearly supports the plain language of the statute: the maximization language was intended neither to override the best interests standard, nor to create a presumption of equal physical placement when the original placement order granted one parent greater placement.
¶ 30. Applying the plain meaning of the statutes to the present case, we conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in modifying Michael's placement order.
¶ 31. We note that the circuit court's discretion is entitled to deference if it applies the correct legal standard and reaches a reasonable result. See Hughes, 223 Wis. 2d at 119-20. The circuit court determined that modification of the placement order was in the children's best interest and that the circumstances had substantially changed when Michael became self-employed and moved closer to his children. In addition, the trial court concluded that Michael successfully rebutted the presumption that the status quo was not in the children's best interest during the summer months, but that Michael failed to rebut the presumption that continuing the children's placement during the school year was in the children's best interest. In modifying the placement order, the circuit court also considered the factors relevant to the Landwehr
¶ 32. Upon consideration of the children's best interest and factors relevant to the Landwehrs' particular situation, the circuit court increased the children's placement with their father during the summer months, but found that modification of the existing placement schedule during the school year was not in the children's best interest. We find that the record reflects that the court applied the correct legal standard and reached a reasonable conclusion. We therefore affirm the circuit court's modification determinations.
¶ 33. In addition to concluding that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in modifying Michael's placement order in July 2003, we also acknowledge that in making its modification decision, the circuit court did not issue a written decision setting forth its reasons for the modification. Wisconsin Stats. § 767.325(5) requires a court to state in writing its reasons for a modification when the placement modification is contested. The relevant statute reads, in full:
Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5) (emphasis added).
¶ 34. Although the circuit court did not specifically delineate its reasons for the modification decision in a written decision, we find that under the circumstances
¶ 35. We conclude that Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4)(a)2. requires the circuit court to maximize the amount of time within an overall placement schedule and take
By the Court.— The decision of the court of appeals is affirmed.
¶ 36. SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON, C.J. (concurring).
I write to explain how I read the statutes applicable to the present case.
¶ 37. First, I discuss how a circuit court proceeds under a request to modify an order of physical placement, including the meaning of the word "maximizes."
¶ 38. Second, I discuss the statutory requirement that a circuit court state its reasons in writing for modification of physical placement.
¶ 39. The circuit court faced with a request to modify an order of physical placement more than two years after the initial order was entered under Wis. Stat. § 767.24 should approach the request as follows:
¶ 40. The circuit court must determine whether to substantially alter the time a parent may spend with his or her child. Before making any modification that would alter the time a parent may spend with his or her child, the circuit court must find:
¶ 41. In determining the best interest of the child under (1) above, the circuit court considers the rebuttable presumption that continuing the child's physical placement with the parent with whom the child resides for the greater period of time is in the best interest of the child.
¶ 42. After considering the presumption, making the necessary findings, and deciding to modify the physical placement, the circuit court then must decide what the physical placement should be. In deciding the modified physical placement, the circuit court "shall consider the factors under s. 767.24(5)(am), subject to s. 767.24(5)(bm),
¶ 44. The circuit court shall make its determination about how to modify the physical placement "in a manner consistent with s. 767.24." This reference to "a manner consistent with s. 767.24" is unclear.
¶ 45. Under Wis. Stat. § 767.24(4), in modifying physical placement the circuit court "shall consider each case on the basis of the factors in sub.(5)(am) . . . [and] shall set a placement schedule that allows the child to have regularly occurring, meaningful periods of physical placement with each parent and that maximizes
¶ 46. To harmonize the statutes, I conclude that in complying with Wis. Stat. § 767.24(5m) by considering the best interest of the child and the 17 factors, the circuit court shall also "maximize the amount of time the child may spend with each parent" by setting a placement schedule that considers the actual amount of time the child is likely to spend with the parent. In other words, the circuit court in setting a placement schedule should, in addition to considering all the other factors required by statute, take into account the actual amount of time the child is likely to spend with each parent. Thus the circuit court might consider such matters as the time the child is, for example, in school, or with a caretaker, or asleep, and the times a parent works or is otherwise unavailable to be with the child.
¶ 47. I conclude that the approach I have set forth satisfies the statutory requirements and gives meaning to all parts of the statutes.
¶ 48. I also write to discuss part IV of the majority opinion, majority op., ¶¶ 33-34, relating to the requirement in Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5) that when either party
¶ 49. Wisconsin Stat. § 767.325(5) states in full:
¶ 50. The writing requirement in Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5) may serve several purposes. First and most importantly, the written statement assists the party objecting to modification to understand better the reasons for the circuit court's modification of placement. A circuit court's written statement of reasoning is particularly important in family law cases because of the high percentage of self-represented litigants.
¶ 51. In addition, a written statement of reasons for modification forces the circuit court to think through and express its rationale carefully; allows for easier appellate review to determine whether the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion; and will later assist a circuit court that may be asked for further modification of physical placement.
¶ 53. The circuit court in the instant case did not state in writing the reasons for the modification or why its findings are in the best interest of the child. The majority opinion concludes that "the circuit court order substantially met the requirement" that the order be in writing, reasoning that the written order incorporated by reference the findings of fact and conclusions of law stated orally on the record.
¶ 54. I do not think that the writing requirements of Wis. Stat. § 767.24(6) and § 767.325(5) were met in the instant case. Nor were the requirements "substantially met." The legislature has not stated that the circuit court shall incorporate by reference an oral record of its reasons.
¶ 56. Were this court or the court of appeals considering a challenge to a circuit court's order modifying placement based on the lack of the writings required by Wis. Stat. § 767.24(6) and § 767.325(5), the reviewing court should, in my opinion, remand the case to the circuit court to state its reasoning in writing before determining whether the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion.
¶ 57. For the reasons set forth I write separately.
¶ 58. ANN WALSH BRADLEY, J. (concurring).
I write separately with regard to the writing requirement of Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5). The majority acknowledges that this issue was not raised, briefed, or argued. Majority op., ¶ 34 n.14.
¶ 59. Without the assistance of adversarial briefing or arguments, both the majority and the above concurrence divine purposes behind the writing requirement. See id., ¶ 34 & n.13; concurrence, ¶ 50. They do not agree on those purposes. I would leave for another day our interpretation of the writing requirement in § 767.325(5).
Id. at 202 (quoting Adams v. Adams, 178 Wis. 522, 525, 190 N.W. 359 (1922)).
Subsequent to this court's decision in Hamachek, the Wisconsin Legislature significantly amended the statutes governing modification decisions. In Andrew J. N., this court examined whether the erroneous exercise of discretion remained the proper standard of review even though the statutes had been significantly revised. This court concluded that the rationale from Hamachek applied to modification decisions under Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1)(a) by the circuit court even though the law had been amended.
We similarly conclude that the erroneous exercise of discretion is the proper standard of review for a circuit court's modification decision under Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1)(b).
Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1)(b).
If the modifications sought are within two years of the initial order entered under Wis. Stat. § 767.24, the party seeking modification must file a motion that shows by substantial evidence that the modification of custody or placement is necessary because the current conditions are physically or emotionally harmful to the best interest of the child. The statute states:
Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1)(a). This statute is inapplicable to the present case.
Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1)(b)2.b.
Wis. Stat. § 767.24(5)(am)(1) to (16).
In addition, Wis. Stat. § 767.24(5)(bm) addresses cases of spousal abuse, battery, or domestic violence, stating that when such circumstances are present, "the safety and wellbeing of the child and the safety of the parent who was the victim of the battery or abuse shall be the paramount concerns in determining legal custody and periods of physical placement." Such circumstances are not present in this case.
Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5m).
In addition, another important objective of the modification statutes is continuity in the child's placement. See Wis. Stat. § 767.325(1)(b)2. Here, the custody modification was ordered in July 2003. Reversal of the court's custody order from nearly three years ago does not further the goal of maintaining continuity in the Landwehr children's placement, which the legislature has determined is in the children's best interest.
Does the reference in Wis. Stat. § 767.325(5m) to § 767.24 refer to everything in § 767.24 relating to physical placement, or is the reference only to the provisions of § 767.24 relating to the manner in which the circuit court makes its decisions, as set forth in § 767.24(6)? If the reference is to § 767.24(4), why did the legislature use the word "manner" and why did the legislature not explicitly refer to § 767.24(4), as it explicitly referred to § 767.24(5)(am) and (bm)? It seems reasonable, however, that a circuit court modifying a physical placement order consider the factors set forth in § 767.24(4).