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In Re the Marriage of Travis Sisson and Alfronia Sisson

March 13, 2013

IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF TRAVIS SISSON AND ALFRONIA SISSON UPON THE PETITION OF TRAVIS SISSON, PETITIONER-APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE, AND CONCERNING ALFRONIA SISSON, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Glenn E. Pille, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vaitheswaran, P.J.

Travis Sisson appeals, and Alfronia Sisson cross-appeals, from the district court's order modifying the spousal support provisions, and denying Travis's application to modify the custody provision, of the parties' dissolution decree. AFFIRMED ON APPEAL; AFFIRMED ON CROSS-APPEAL.

Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Tabor and Mullins, JJ.

Travis Sisson appeals the denial of his application to modify the custody provision of the decree dissolving his marriage to Alfronia Sisson. Travis also appeals, and Alfronia cross-appeals, the court's ruling on Alfronia's application to modify the financial provisions of the decree.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

Travis and Alfronia Sisson married in 1997 and divorced eleven years later. Under the terms of a stipulated decree, the parents were to have "virtually equal parenting time" of their child, born in 1998. The district court ordered Travis to pay child support of $1020 per month. The court also ordered him to pay spousal support of $1500 per month for eighteen months and $500 per month for the next seventy-four months.

Two and one-half years after the dissolution decree was filed, Travis applied to modify the physical care arrangement. He raised a number of grounds, including the child's faltering grades. Alfronia counterclaimed for a modification of the decree's financial provisions. She cited her recent diagnosis of terminal blood cancer that required "routine and continuous treatment" and a resulting decrease in her earnings and earning capacity.

Following a hearing, the district court dismissed Travis's application to modify physical care and granted Alfronia's application to modify the financial provisions of the decree. The court ordered Travis to pay Alfronia spousal support of $2100 per month until the death of either party. The court additionally ordered Travis to pay one-half of Alfronia's uninsured medical expenses "related to her cancer and its treatment." The court characterized these payments as supplemental alimony. Travis appealed and Alfronia cross-appealed.

II. Modification of Physical Care

A party seeking to modify a physical care arrangement must establish a material and substantial change of circumstances. In re Marriage of Frederici, 338 N.W.2d 156, 158 (Iowa 1983). Travis contends "Alfronia's illness" and the child's "significant needs, particularly academic" amount to that substantial change. The district court disagreed. With respect to Alfronia's illness, the court stated:

Alfronia's health condition . . . is not substantial enough to change her ability to take care of [the child], a fourteen-year-old young lady. [Alfronia's physician] testified that Alfronia has two to five good years left before her physical condition deteriorates to the point that she would be unable to take care of herself and her daughter. [The child's counselor] testified that Alfronia and [the child] share a strong bond and it would be a serious mistake to reduce [the child's] time with her mother. [The child] wants to keep equal time with her parents. [The counselor] believes that reducing [her] time with Alfronia, when she is going through the changes associated with her cancer, would have lifelong negative consequences for [the child].

There is no evidence providing that Alfronia's care of [the child] has deteriorated in any way. It will probably change in the next three to four years, but by then [the child] will be nearing adulthood and simply needs love and support rather than daily care. It will be more important as the cancer progresses for [the child] to spend more quality time with her mother, not less. Travis has therefore failed to meet his burden of proof that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that would warrant a modification of the custodial provisions . . . .

On our de novo review of the record, we agree with this reasoning.

Turning to the child's academic performance, the record reflects that she had been struggling for several years. Indeed, Travis conceded her grades began deteriorating when the couple was still married. At that time, he said he did not do much to address the slippage because "that wasn't my department." Following the dissolution, he took steps to hire tutors but agreed that, even though the child made significant strides with them, that progress did not translate into progress at school. While Travis asserts that the child's grades remained stagnant because ...


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