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MORE JUDICIAL CLARITY ON CUSTODY DECISIONS

Posted in Custody

In 2012 we saw the arrival of a new custody statute that gave the Courts more substantive and procedural guidance concerning how to decide custody cases and a subset of those cases: specifically, relocation.  Since that date we have been awaiting civil rules to fill in the details.  They have not yet arrived, but as the decision in AMS v. MRC demonstrates, guidance is coming from the Superior Court. 

In this decision, issued on June 28, Judges Bowes, Olson and Wecht reviewed a Berks County relocation case where a Mother secured permission to take a then 2 year old child from Berks County, Pennsylvania to Palmyra, New York.  This was a first appearance in court for both parties in a custody dispute.  The Court heard the case and approved the relocation subject to one visit per month with Father.  Father appealed the decision. 

The initial basis for appeal had to do with the procedure.  The trial court issued an order which defined the new custody schedule but did not provide the basis for the ruling nor any analysis of the factors set forth in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5323.  When Father appealed, he was ordered to produce a concise statement of the basis for his appeal under Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b).  Father essentially responded that the trial court thwarted his ability to provide a concise statement of his basis for appeal because the Order he was appealing contained no explanation for what the Court considered to be the merits of its decision allowing Mother to move.              

On this basis alone, the Superior Court judges on the panel voted to reverse the decision noting that without a statement of its reasons made at or about the time that it ruled, the trial court deprived the Appellant of not only the ability to articulate the Court’s error but the ability to evaluate the merit of the judicial ruling.  In short, without knowing why the Court ruled for relocation the Appellant was deprived of the chance to evaluate whether there were grounds for appeal and to articulate those grounds in the concise statement.  The clear message from this case and one decided in April, CB v. JB et al., 2013 Pa. Super. 92 (2013) is that Courts owe an obligation to the litigants to explain their decisions per Section 5323 at or immediately following their determinations of custody.  The purpose is to allow litigants time to reflect on the merits of the reasoning before the appeal period runs rather than take an appeal hoping for an erroneous or weak analysis of the merits of the case.  See also, MP v. MP, 54 A.3d 950 (Pa. S. 2012). 

The second basis for reversing the relocation decision was because the record did not thoroughly examine allegations that there might be substance abuse occurring inside the home where the Mother intended to relocate. The decision does not specify these allegations or evaluate how the trial court weighed.  It reversed the Order with the comment: “[without] information on the household members with whom the child would be living we cannot conclude that the trial court considered all relevant factors.  This was error.” 

The clear message to the Courts of Common Pleas is that once issues are raised the burden actually appears to shift to the Court to assure itself that the record is complete and the burden is on the Courts to provide a thorough analysis of the custody statutes sooner rather than later, meaning after the appeal is taken.  

AMS v. MRC, 2013 Pa. Super. 156 (6/28/13).

N.B. Thanks to our partner Jacqueline Segal for passing this case.