When Shane Peterson decided to divorce his wife and give her primary custody of their two young daughters, he had no idea he was making it easier for her to move out of the country with the children.
In November, less than a year after the divorce, Family Court Judge William Gonzalez granted Cecilia Peterson’s request for permission to relocate with the girls to Sweden, her birthplace. They left two days before Christmas.
“So mid-school year he’s allowing these kids to be relocated to a foreign country — 6,000 miles away, nine time zones and about a 20-hour flight,” Shane Peterson said in a recent interview at his Henderson home.
Shane Peterson hasn’t seen his daughters, 7 and 4, since they left more than five months ago.
With the help of an attorney who specializes in family law, Bruce Shapiro, the father is appealing Gonzalez’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. Shapiro hopes to make new law with the case.
“Right now the law doesn’t specifically address moves out of the country,” the attorney said.
Shapiro wants the high court to make it more difficult for parents involved in Nevada custody cases to move out of the United States with their children. He said judges already differentiate between requests by parents who want to move to a nearby state, such as California, and parents who want to move to a state on the other side of the country, such as New York.
“Certainly there should be given even more scrutiny if the move’s going to be on the other side of the world,” Shapiro said.
Since his children moved away, Shane Peterson has sent emails about his case to numerous reporters and politicians. He even sent one to President Barack Obama.
In April, he issued his own news release with the headline, “Family Court Judge Gonzalez Abuses Discretion, Alienates Young Daughters From Father.”
Cecilia Peterson did not respond to an interview request made through her Henderson attorney, Gary Zernich.
Before granting Cecilia Peterson’s request to relocate, Gonzalez looked at what he called the “pre-eminent case” on the matter: Schwartz v. Schwartz.
The 1991 Nevada Supreme Court case involved a request by a custodial father to move with his children from Nevada to Pennsylvania, where his family lived. A judge granted the request, and the mother appealed.
According to the state Supreme Court decision, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling:
“In determining the issue of removal, the court must first find whether the custodial parent has demonstrated that an actual advantage will be realized by both the children and the custodial parent in moving to a location so far removed from the current residence that weekly visitation by the noncustodial parent is virtually precluded.”
If the custodial parent satisfies this threshold requirement, according to the opinion, the court then must weigh other factors, including “whether the custodial parent’s motives are honorable.”
In a later case, Jones v. Jones, the state Supreme Court clarified its opinion in Schwartz, ruling that an “actual advantage” requires only a showing of a “sensible, good faith reason for the move.”
Gonzalez concluded that Cecilia Peterson had a sensible, good faith reason. In his decision, he noted that the parents were married in Sweden, one of the girls was born there and both the parents and the children have dual citizenship. He also pointed out that both children speak English and Swedish, and Cecilia’s parents live in Sweden, where her Swedish law degree will give her a much greater chance of finding work as an attorney.
Gonzalez concluded that Cecilia Peterson’s motives for requesting the move were “not designed to frustrate or defeat visitation rights accorded to Shane.”
In Shane Peterson’s appeal brief, his lawyers question whether Cecilia Peterson really acted in good faith.
According to the brief, Cecilia Peterson consulted with attorney John Eccles before the divorce and was working as a paralegal for Zernich, a family law attorney, at the time of the divorce.
“For his own part, Shane had no legal counsel whatsoever and did not understand the legal consequences of conceding primary physical custody to Cecilia,” his lawyers wrote.
They argue that Cecilia Peterson obtained primary custody “knowing it would be easier” to move once she did so.
According to the brief, her petition to relocate came only a few weeks after the pair’s January 2013 divorce.
“Had Cecilia advised Shane of her intention to relocate to Sweden at the time of the divorce, Shane certainly would have hired an attorney, and he would have abandoned the notion of conceding primary physical custody in order to avoid a custody battle,” the father’s lawyers wrote.
The attorneys argue that “such a hidden agenda” has been construed by the courts as “lacking good faith.”
“Cecilia knew — but Shane did not — that Cecilia, as primary physical custodian, would not even have to prove that it was in the children’s best interests in order to remove the children from Nevada,” according to the appeal brief.
Shane Peterson’s lawyers also argue that his children’s move to Sweden will preclude him from maintaining “significant and substantial involvement” in their lives.
“A few weeks in the summer and on Christmas will not alter the fact that Shane’s parental rights, as he has known them, will be terminated by their international relocation,” the lawyers wrote.
They further argue that the mother’s motives were selfish rather than honorable.
But Cecilia Peterson’s lawyers argue in their response that the relocation “was prompted by her struggles with being employed in the United States.”
“Cecilia was able to show that the move is likely to improve the quality of life for the children and herself,” her lawyers wrote.
When clients come to Shapiro seeking advice about a request to relocate with children, he gives them a 152-page packet with the 15 Nevada Supreme Court decisions that have addressed the issue, starting with Schwartz.
Only one, Hayes v. Gallacher in 1999, involved an international move.
In that case, the mother asked for permission to move with her children to Japan after her new husband, a staff sergeant stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, was assigned there for a four-year tour.
A Family Court judge denied the request, and the mother appealed.
Shapiro said the state Supreme Court relied on procedural issues that were unrelated to the international move in resolving the case, which was sent back to Family Court before the parties reached a settlement.
In the Peterson case, Shapiro is arguing that international moves require additional safeguards and considerations.
“International relocation so fundamentally alters the parent-child relationship that the courts must discard any standard that favors the relocating parent and focus solely upon the best interests of the children,” according to the appeal brief.
Shane Peterson was in his junior year at Purdue University in Indiana when he went to Germany as an exchange student.
He met Cecilia during a visit to Sweden in 1999, and they soon began dating.
In 2001, after graduating from Purdue, Shane Peterson moved to Sweden and lived with Cecilia. The two were married there on July 2, 2005.
Their first daughter was born in Sweden in August 2006, and the family moved to Southern Nevada the following year, after Shane was hired by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Shane Peterson said Cecilia’s parents liked to visit from Sweden and stay with the family for weeks at a time.
“It caused a lot of friction in our relationship,” he said.
The couple’s second daughter was born in Las Vegas in February 2010.
While both girls speak Swedish, their father said, “Their English is still much better than their Swedish.”
The family lived in Oregon for about a year before returning to Southern Nevada in July 2012, when Shane Peterson began working for Zappos. After the move, the couple’s relationship began deteriorating rapidly, Shane Peterson recalled. He decided to ask for a divorce.
“It was really in the kids’ best interest that I made that decision,” he said.
In April 2013, one month after he moved out of the family’s home, Shane Peterson learned about his ex-wife’s intent to move to Sweden.
Gonzalez, who is up for re-election this year, heard evidence in September before granting the request.
Cecilia Peterson and the children now live with her parents in Balsta, Sweden.
Shane Peterson said he already has missed school plays, holidays and one daughter’s birthday. He speaks to his daughters usually four to five times a week.
“I think about them every day,” he said.
Shane Peterson pays $1,452 a month in child support, but the judge’s order allows him to deduct up to $2,000 a year to cover the cost of a visit to Sweden. He also pays his ex-wife $375 a month in spousal support.
“I pay almost $2,000 a month to someone who took my kids 6,000 miles away and is reluctant to let me have even Skype contact,” he lamented.
Gonzalez ruled that the girls will spend their summer breaks with their father, and that Cecilia Peterson will cover the costs of their travel. Shane Peterson said he is expecting them to arrive from Sweden on Thursday night.
But his lawyers argue that Gonzalez failed to address the “jurisdictional problem” created by the international move. Nevada has no jurisdiction over Cecilia Peterson in Sweden, according to the appeal brief, and Shane Peterson has no way to enforce his visitation rights.
Meanwhile, the father hopes the state Supreme Court will issue a decision before the fall.
Family Court judges “have such broad discretion in cases like this,” he said. “People don’t realize what power the Family Court has over, really, the core of our community — our family unit.”
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710. Follow her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.