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Arcella v. Arcella

Supreme Court of Nevada

December 26, 2017

MATTHEW F. ARCELLA, Appellant/Cross-Respondent,
v.
MELISSA A. ARCELLA, Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

         Appeal and cross-appeal from a post-divorce decree district court order modifying a child's educational placement. Eighth Judicial District Court, Family Court Division, Clark County; Lisa M. Brown, Judge.

          Pecos Law Group and Shann D. Winesett and Bruce I. Shapiro, Henderson, for Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

          Law Offices of F. Peter James, Esq., and F. Peter James, Las Vegas, for Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

         BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.

          OPINION

          STIGLICH, J.

         Child custody determinations require a district court to determine the child's best interest. In this case, we are tasked with determining what weight, if any, a court should afford one parent's objection to the child receiving a religious education. We conclude that the focus of the court's inquiry must remain on the child's best interest and not the religious preferences of the parents. Because the district court treated one parent's religious objection as dispositive, failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine the child's best interest, and failed to support its order with factual findings, we reverse and remand for the district court to make a proper best interest determination.

         BACKGROUND

         Melissa and Matthew Arcella divorced in 2009. They agreed to and were awarded joint legal and physical custody of their two children, four-year-old R.A. and two-year-old W.A. Regarding their children's education, the divorce decree provided: "Subject to both parties mutually agreeing to send their children or child to private school, [t]he parties agree to equally split the cost of private school tuition and costs for the minor children." The parents agreed to enroll the children at The Henderson International School (Henderson), a small, private, secular school. In 2014, they agreed in a stipulated order that the children would continue at Henderson, but Matthew would be responsible for all tuition costs. In 2016, when 11-year-old R.A. was about to finish her elementary education, the parents agreed that, although Henderson offered middle school education, R.A. should attend a larger middle school. They disagreed as to which school.

         Matthew moved the district court for an order directing that R.A. attend a religious private school, Faith Lutheran. He argued that it was in R.A.'s best interest to attend Faith Lutheran because she was used to private schooling, she wanted to enroll there, and Faith Lutheran had a high college placement rate.

         Melissa objected to her child receiving a religious education at Faith Lutheran. She argued that R.A. should attend the local public school, Bob Miller Middle School, which was highly ranked for academics and closer to R.A's primary residence.

         Without holding an evidentiary hearing, the district court ordered that R.A. would attend Bob Miller Middle School. The court's order is notably devoid of findings. After summarizing the factual background, procedural history, and both parents' arguments, the order found that attending both schools would be in the child's best interest. Recognizing, however, that it was "not feasible" for R.A. to attend two schools at once, the court chose Bob Miller Middle School because it was "taking into consideration [Melissa's] religious objection, "

         Matthew appeals the portion of the order directing R.A. to attend Bob Miller Middle School.[1]

         DISCUSSION

         When parents in a joint legal custody situation disagree as to a child's education, they "may appear before the court on an equal footing to have the court decide what is in the best interest of the child." Rivero v. Rivero,125 Nev. 410, 421, 216 P.3d 213, 221-22 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also NRS 125C.0045(1)(a) (authorizing courts to make orders regarding a child's education "as appears in his or her best interest"). We review a district court's best interest ...


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