On September 9, 2016 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that portions of the current child custody law were an unconstitutional interference with the fundamental right of parents to raise their children in accordance with their own standards and beliefs. It involves some unusual facts and a quirky portion of the custody law defining when grandparents have standing to seek an award of partial physical custody.

The section in controversy, was enacted in 2010. It relates only to requests for partial custody. In D.P. and B.P. v. G.J.P. and A.P., the mother and father of the subject children had separated for more than six months but no divorce action had been filed. Referencing Section 5325(2) the grandparents brought their action for partial physical custody of the children. Both mother and father filed a motion to dismiss this action asserting that they jointly objected to such an award. The trial court in Westmoreland County considered the objections and, citing the US Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Troxel v. Granville, determined that because this was an interference with parental custodial rights deemed fundamental as a matter of law, the statute conferring these rights was subject to strict scrutiny. 530 U.S. 57,65. Under that standard, the state had a duty to demonstrate a compelling need to legislate in this area and the grandparents had failed to show the state had met that standard in crafting Section 5325(2). The only statutory threshold to invade the fundamental rights of the parents to raise their children without interference was a separation of six months. The Court noted that this case involved no assertion that the children were not adequately cared for or that there was other reason for legislative action to protect the children.

The trial court ruling was immediately appealed to the Supreme Court which heard argument in early April. In an analysis by Chief Justice Saylor, the high court concluded that in circumstances where a parent was deceased (Sec 5325(1)) or where a child had actually lived with a grandparent, there was a compelling basis for state action. But, where, as here, the parents actually agreed that grandparent custody was not in the child’s best interests, the state had no basis to interfere with that determination. The majority decision was careful to restrict the holding to cases where parents had separated, appearing to preserve the right of grandparents to make custodial claims once a divorce was filed. Dissenting opinions by Justices Baer and Wecht argue that this distinction was not sustainable under a strict scrutiny standard as the existence of a divorce filing was not more a basis to warrant judicial intervention in family affairs than a separation of six months.

This is an interesting crack in the door and one which invites eventual removal of the door. The dissents ask questions such as: suppose the parents disagree about grandparent visits or file for divorce? Is the door now open? Suppose the parents never did marry or even live together? This heads into even more controversial territory which is fast coming upon us. Who is a parent for purposes of custody and support? Genetic testing affords us the ability to determine this in a biological sense. But we have started to see more and more cases working around adults acting in some form of loco parentis. Obviously, grandparents and, according to the statute great grandparents have their own rights. In a world where “parents” move freely from one relationship to another and children often “attach” to these adults, is there a limit to how many participants can be involved before it becomes clear that the litigation is itself a harm to the child? This is a question which was not before the court but it looms larger every day.

D.P. and B.P. vs. G.J.P. and A.P.     Journal-53-2016             25 W.A.P. 2015   (9/9/16)

 

We have written before about the subject of when and how a person can be in “contempt” of a court order. The word itself is riddled with often misunderstood meaning.  What could be worse than having a court decide that you are contemptible?

In the past week I have been called to court to prosecute or defend two of these cases. The first instance involved a request to find my client in contempt of a custody order.  The court where the matter was heard summons people to a non-record hearing where a hearing officer either recommends or denies a request for a finding of contempt.  The hearings are scheduled one per hour and if you don’t like the recommendation you take an appeal and have a record hearing before a judge.  The typical remedy of make up time for lost custody, an award of $118 in costs and a $200-300 fine makes it such that the game is not worth the candle.  I recommended to my client to do what he wanted as Step 1 would cost $1000-2000 in attorney time and an appeal would consume that much and more.  Who wins contempt proceedings?  Almost without exception it is the party who has superior financial resources. The litigant with $50,000 in net earnings has twice the staying power of the one making $25,000 and the remedies are pathetically weak.  So if you want to exhaust your opponent financially, spurious or weak contempt proceedings and appeals are a great way to win a custody war by attrition.

This week was a petition to enforce a prior court order in divorce. I had the enforcing side and the spouse had been held in contempt on at least two prior occasions for ignoring an order to sell a house. The most recent petition was filed after the house was finally sold while in foreclosure and the actual damages could be calculated and assessed as the hemorrhaging had ended.  The petition to assess the damages had been filed almost 90 days earlier but, the Respondent waited until the day before the hearing to retain counsel.  That begot a request for a continuance to prepare.

My newfound opposing counsel is resourceful. As I anticipated she came to court ready to challenge every paragraph of the petition and to assert defenses that might have had some traction two or more years ago but were effectively waived by the fact that they should have been raised in prior proceedings.  But in contempt court the rules work to the advantage of the party who plays games.  You see, they are entitled to a specific pleading setting forth how they violated the court’s orders.  Do they have to specify their defenses?  Not in Pennsylvania.  The joke is on the party seeking to enforce the order because the responding party needs to do nothing except appear in court on the appointed day. So in my case, we killed three hours of time while new counsel asserted defenses and demanded “proofs” never before articulated.  In candor, some of them had merit.  But whether the defense arguments were good, bad or indifferent, the party prosecuting the contempt never gets to see or hear about them until the case is called.  The cost of preparing a contempt hearing is always unnecessarily high because the person prosecuting the case has to conjure what the defenses might be.  Why force a party to explain why he or she disobeyed a court order or put in writing the reasons their conduct did not violate the order?  That would be efficient.

Then we get to the remedies. In under Section 3502(e)(7) a divorce setting you can at least claim attorneys fees.  But what about damages caused by a party’s refusal to comply with a court order?  You won’t find that remedy in the statute.  Support law is even worse.  Section 4345 allows 180 days of county subsidized imprisonment, a fine not to exceed $1,000 which is payable to the Court and up to a year of taxpayer funded probation.  You have to go to Section 4351(b) to get reasonable fees and costs and you have to prove the obligor did not have good cause for his failure to comply.  Once again, burden is not on the person with the duty to comply but on the person supposedly benefiting from the award.  Custody violations are covered by Section 5339 and impose the same standard as 42 Pa.C.S. 2503.  The action must be obdurate, vexatious, repetitive or in bad faith. Pa.R.C.P. 1915.12’s notice for hearing makes no reference to counsel fees as a remedy which, of course, creates a due process problem in its own right should an award be made.

The statute and the rules need to make it clear that failure to obey costs money and lots of it. The sanction of a fine or award for failure to comply should be monetary and have a temporal element. When the message gets out that failure costs $25 a day or $250 a day, people will pay attention.  Putting parents and divorcing people in prison or on parole only punishes the taxpayer without corresponding benefit to the innocent party victimized by the non-compliance.  But the starting point is to force litigants to frame the issues in writing before anyone enters the courthouse.  It takes what is supposed to be a pointed procedure and dulls it beyond recognition.

Last week Newsweek published its annual rankings of America’s Top High Schools.  This is a much awaited publication for those with children of that age and it is undoubtedly well circulated in the admissions offices of our colleges and universities.

These compilations also commonly hit the family lawyer’s desk whenever there is a hot dispute over primary custody or relocation. In reading the recent history of relocation cases, the decided focus of Superior Court cases is on the matter of how the relocation benefits the child and in many instances we are given these rating compilations by custody litigants who want to show that a new school would be “better” for the child or the present placement is “fine.”

Many judges and hearing officers deciding these cases will admit these magazines “for what their worth.” Technically, there are myriad evidentiary problems with any “ranking.”  The content of the magazine is itself hearsay.  The person making the statement that “Quaker Valley is the 271st best high school in the nation.” is not a named person at all.  It is a magazine.  So we don’t know the identity of the person who decided that Quaker Valley was No. 271 while Penncrest was No. 276.  We also don’t know the specifics of how this was decided.  The article will tell you about general parameters employed such as college matriculation and graduation rates and average SAT scores.  But the typical editors who do the ranking don’t tell us how these metrics are weighted or whether a planetarium is a plus while a ceramics kiln is neutral.  Lawyers who stand up and object to the admission of these rankings have excellent reasons why the objection should be sustained and most law school professors would harshly grade any student of Evidence who would admit “speculative hearsay compiled without ascertainable scientific foundation.”  Of course you could subpoena the editors of Newsweek to explain all of this but, alas, they rarely come to court.

What really happens? Most judges this author has seen will admit the document over objection noting that the actual “value” of this as evidence is not easily ascertained.  I suspect they then lug the magazine back into chambers and scan it first to see whether their high school got in.  Then they will glance at the schools the litigants want to compare and spend a couple of minutes seeing what data there is that they can assess (e.g., grad rates and SAT scores).  Because, even they realize that Newsweek and other magazines of its ilk don’t really spend the other 51 weeks of the year studying America’s 18,000+ high schools. Americans love rankings of all stripes and a magazine’s job is to amuse its audience.

The other thing that happens in chambers after the dust of a school enrollment fight settles is lamentation. I suspect that what most judges would privately tell the litigants is that if they truly wanted a positive outcome, the best thing two parents could do would be to agree on a school placement and support the child together in that placement.  For most children a custody war is a diversion from life and education over which they have no control.  In many instances it is clear that No. 36 ranked Conestoga High School is a superior school to No. 168 Fox Chapel.  But outstanding kids from Fox Chapel go to Harvard too and in the vast majority of custody disputes, Harvard is not really on the horizon.  There are always special cases where a child has really unique gifts (not as much as their parents think) or special educational challenges where a special educational “fit” is called for.  But, most judges grade on the “curve.”  They are not trying to raise young venture capitalists or nuclear physicists.  They want children who will not commit crimes and pay taxes when they grow up.  Judges get to see plenty of adults who are very bright but never mastered the “no crimes” or “pay taxes” thresholds of adult life.  So often they are put off by parents who think that a child custody trial is a sound means of securing maximum educational achievement.  Parents are often disappointed to discover that “The judge doesn’t seem to care.”  Ironically, judges do care, but from their elevated view on the bench they often see quite clearly that moving a child from No. 284 Haverford High to No. 126 Kiski will not vastly improves the chances for post grad studies in math at Stanford.

The ratings wars will go on because we love quick answers to complex questions. And if you have a custody case where you want to enroll Eloise in No. 113 Upper St. Clair while the useless father wants to keep her at a school that doesn’t even have a ranking, be certain to get the August 11 edition of Newsweek and bring it to Court so the judge can see that you are a concerned parent.  But don’t bet the down payment on a house in western Pennsylvania on the belief that the magazine is your ticket to a new life in a new town.  It’s not how the cookie crumbles.

Having just finished one of these, I searched our database and noted that we had written very little about it.

In my case earlier this week, my adversary and I had been negotiating a child support order. After several rounds, we reached a mutually acceptable conclusion. When I wrote to confirm our “terms” I received a responsive email that the child’s father wanted to claim the child as a dependent on his federal income tax returns “every other year.”  My client would justly ask:  What does that concession mean and what is it worth?”

If you do your own income taxes at the federal level, you know that on page 1 of the return you are asked to name your “dependents” and on page 2 you can claim a deduction reducing your taxable income by $4,000 for every eligible dependent including yourself. So if Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard are living in the same shoe and they have two minor children, they can take a total of $16,000 in exemptions (i.e. deductions) from their income ($4,000 x 4).  But what happens when Father Hubbard splits to live with another storybook character?  Clearly, if the Hubbard’s continue to file joint returns, nothing much changes.  But Father Hubbard is now paying some deductible alimony to Mother and he needs to file separately in order to claim it.  And since he is paying child support as well why can’t he deduct at least one of the kids?

Well the Internal Revenue Service is on this and since 1984 they have taken the position that the deduction associated with a child goes to that parent who had primary physical custody.

The parties can agree to split the deductions (one parent takes each child) but absent an agreement, the deduction stays with the parent who has the kid most of the overnights, even though the non-custodial parent may be paying most or all of the freight. More recently as we have seen increases in shared physical (50/50) custody, the service has held that the deduction in that instance goes to the parent with the larger adjusted gross income.  See our blog on this 11/1/12.

As we have noted, the deduction can be traded and the IRS has a Form called No. 8332 that allows parents to do that. So what is the deduction worth?  $4,000 right?  Well, not so fast.

The real value of the deduction depends on your taxable income for single folks with taxable income under $10,000; the deduction is only worth 10% of the face amount or $400. But for a head of household with taxable income over $50,000 it is worth 25% or $1,000.  Get that taxable income up into the $200,000 range and the deduction accelerates to 33% or $1,320.  The value of the deduction tops out at 39.6% or $1,584 but your taxable income has to top $400,000 to get that amount.  Beware that as adjusted gross income (AGI) starts to exceed $150,000 the IRS begins to nibble away at the value of the exemption through a “phase out.”  For many high income taxpayers, there is effectively no personal exemption to deduct because of the phase out.

One other thing to know. Assigning the exemption to another does not affect a taxpayer’s right to be a head of household and to use those slightly lower tables in determining the actual tax due. But one thing is clear; while dependency exemptions do reduce your taxes, they do not do so dollar for dollar. An exemption is, at best worth the equivalent of $110 per month and, at worst worth about $35 monthly.

N.B. IRS Publication 504 is the best place for a layperson to consult on line.  Every one of the rules described above has a plethora of exceptions.

A Friendly Amendment To Our Blog On Dependency Exemptions:

I heard from one reader with a very apt point. As income rises, into levels above $150,000, the dependency exemption does phase out and there is a level where it disappears completely.  So I was incorrect to suggest that it has a minimal value.  It can be zero and you certainly don’t want to get into a fight over “nothing.”

An interesting and, yes, published relocation case was decided by the Superior Court on June 15. D.K.D. v. A.L.C. 2016 Pa. Super 123 involved custody of a child, age 8, who suffers from Pervasive Personality Disorder. The parents separated shortly after the birth of L.D.  They were not divorced until 2015.

L.D. showed signs of language and speech delays at 18 months and the formal diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder was made at age 3. After separation the parents lived in close proximity to each other but father’s custody was limited to four hours during the week and alternate Saturdays for an additional three hours.  Whether rightly or not, mother appears to have insisted that visits be confined to her home because L.D. did not respond well to changes in location.

In February, 2014, father filed for larger blocks of custody and a holiday and vacation schedule. Mother responded with a request to relocate with L.D. to Florida where her mother resided. In March, 2015 with the trial of the conflicting claims concluded the relocation request was denied, the court noting that it saw the only change to be a possible improvement in mother’s life by living with her mother.  The Allegheny County court’s order also expanded father’s custody over time and instructed mother that L.D. could and should be taken from mother’s home during father’s visits.

The Order of March 23, 2015 prompted mother to file for reconsideration and special relief. One of the ostensible issues was the failure of the order to address custody for mother if she relocated to Florida without L.D.  Mother also sought a new order premised upon her securing a job in Florida with the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs.  Further upping the ante, mother expressed her intention to purchase a home in Florida for mother and L.D. to reside in.  The trial court took the bait, granting reconsideration and re-opening the record to take additional evidence in June, 2015.

The second hearing was the charm and an August 2015 order granted the relocation. This time the trial court found that not only would mother’s life be enhanced but L.D.’s as well.  The factors which previously weighed against relocation: stability for a child with learning/emotional problems, father’s inability to preserve a relationship following a 1,000 mile move and mother’s unjustified need to control father’s visits faded into the mists.  The remaining factors were adjudged neutral, which is to say favoring neither party.  Curiously, the trial court found that mother did a better job of providing for L.D.’s needs but also expressed confidence that father could step up to do more if mother would only permit that.  But the court found that, despite its prior findings, mother would probably be more cooperative if permitted to relocate away from father.

Father appealed and came out swinging with the canard that the trial court had resorted to the long reviled “tender years doctrine”, holding that young children belong with their mothers. The Superior Court axed that argument finding that the record showed no such prejudice.

But, the appellate court was troubled by the sudden shift in mother’s “circumstances” after losing the initial round of the case. Suddenly a $36-41,000 job appeared in Florida and equally suddenly maternal grandmother committed to acquire a $435,000 home for her daughter and L.D. to reside in.  From the opinion, these appear to be the only new facts underlying reconsideration.  Terming the new order of August 2015 a juridical volte face, the Superior Court found that the record did not support the new conclusions of life enhancement for the child.

In denying relocation during Trial 1, the Allegheny County court found that relocation would disrupt stability of school, neighborhood and friends for a child afflicted with a condition that made any adjustments extraordinarily difficult. The trial court also used mother’s professed willingness to leave the child with father in Pennsylvania if relocation were not granted as a tool to rule against father in Trial 2.  Thus, if mother moved and left the child behind, the child would inevitably have to move to father’s neighborhood and enroll in father’s school district.  Father’s offer to move into the child’s existing district if mother relocated without L.D., was not given any weight.  The trial court also found to have ignored the detriment of losing the existing health and behavioral supports in Pennsylvania that L.D. relied upon in addition to his parents.  In addition the Superior Court noted the inconsistency in finding that L.D. needed to preserve his relationship with his father in denying relocation during Trial 1 but finding that alternate weekend visits in Florida by father was an adequate substitute during Trial 2. In a telling observation, Superior Court Judge Bowes writes that aggregating blocks of visits around school breaks and summer is not a viable substitute for the regular twice weekly contact and alternate Saturday visits that L.D. had been accustomed to have with his father.

Mother’s conduct in relocating to Florida without L.D. while the litigation was still underway and sending L.D.’s grandmother back to Pennsylvania to assume primary custody also did not win her any favor. The appellate court saw this choice of not permitting father to have more time while mother was working at her new job in Florida as emblematic of mother’s insistence upon control.  Other inconsistencies also emerged.  Mother moved the Florida professing that she could find no work in Pennsylvania despite her law license.  She also professed that she could not afford to live in her current $290,000 home.  But with the help of her own mother she was able to secure a $435,000 home in Florida with only a $40,000 job and roughly $30,000 in support and alimony from father.  The Superior Court’s review of mother’s job search in the two years prior to her relocation revealed that it was almost exclusively in pursuit of employment in the Sunshine state.  The home acquired with grandmother’s support is two hours away from grandmother’s own home so that the wholesome image of a tri-generational family in one place proved to be illusory.

Finding that mother’s actions “expose her insincerity” the Superior Court reversed the order granting relocation and directed the trial court to hold a hearing to determine how L.D. could be transitioned to live with his father. If mother abandons Florida to resume residence in Pennsylvania the panel suggested she file a petition to modify the now “corrected” custody order.

This case is disturbing in many aspects. Experienced practitioners are used to seeing parents play that “You want more time, I’ll move away” card.  It would appear that even after a year to prepare a relocation case Trial 1 was an abysmal failure for mother; with little evidence of any real benefit to relocation.  But having burned both time and money failing with Trial 1, mother was instantly permitted to “double down” and change the entire theory of her case with new facts.  Reconsideration of a court ruling is supposed to be limited to correcting the evidence or understandings that were of record.  It should never be an invitation to “re-try” a different case employing different facts or theories.  In a world where custody cases are always fluid with ever changing facts, courts need to insist that absent truly compelling circumstances, litigants get one trial at a time.  A child who, by all accounts, fears change and needs stability has endured 2 years of litigation and will now experience two relocations and a change of primary custody because mother decided not to line up a credible case until after she had lost the first trial.  Both the bench and the bar need to realize that the quest for complete records and best interests can often produce enormous backlogs, huge legal bills and instability for the very children we are all tasked to protect.  The Superior Court appears to have done the right thing in reversing this chain of errors.

My colleague Aaron Weems reported this case on April 12. In the spirit of our U.S. Supreme Court, I offer the following concurrence with his blog but spirited dissent from what the Superior Court ruled.

In this published decision, a panel led by former President Judge Bender decides that so long as a reference is made in the pleading to custody modification it does not matter how the pleading is captioned. The problems presented by such precedent are worth some examination.

Contempt in custody is a statutory creature. 23 Pa.C.S. 5323(g). It offers five very specific remedies, none of which involve modification, In many Pennsylvania counties, the procedure for contempt is entirely different than that for custody modification. Scheduling is also handled in a very different way because the issues are typically quite limited.  The Court personnel who schedule these matters do not customarily read beyond the caption of the petition to gather what the petitioner really wants.  So it would be fairly common for a court administrator to direct a contempt petition to a hearing list where several matters are scheduled for disposition in a single day.  A custody modification requires a pretrial statement under Rule 1910.4-3.  Request modification under the contempt rules and you can skip that step.

The next question involves what goes on in the Courtroom. Most judges are going to look at a petition such as the one in this case and tell the petitioner that he or she will hear the contempt but not the modification. But pity the poor litigant who finds himself defending a contempt with a request for modification in a setting where the judge has the time to hear a custody case.  That litigant better walk into contempt court ready to try a modification and to cover the sixteen factors that must be evaluated under 23 Pa C.S. 5328. See S.W.D. v. S.A.R. 2014 Pa. Super. 146 (2014). In the case decided here, the case was remanded because the contempt court failed to cover all of the enumerated factors.

So what have we accomplished? A party can effectively sandbag the opponent if the trial judge permits it.  Both bench and bar face the prospect of stepping into court not knowing what issues will be tried on the date that a “contempt” hearing is scheduled.  Obviously a judge can stop this but it seems clear, that is not required.

The opinion correctly observes that the right to due process was not wholly violated. As the opinion notes, the request for a change in custody was written into the petition filed by the Father. But both the legislature and the judiciary have made it very clear that child custody matters require a full exposition of the facts before any modification is made.  The idea that modification can be “bootstrapped” into a petition premised upon violation of an existing order works against the very principles both the laws and the rules espouse to promote.  And the defense that contempt can be a springboard for a wholesale modification of custody because it is in the “best interests of the child” to do so, is not a strong one.  The opinion goes to some length to describe “signals” that the trial was going to be addressing modification and not merely a contempt petition. The difficulties presented, especially to pro se litigants by reliance on signals rather than the plain caption of the pleadings presents its own problems.  We have published volumes of statutes and rules intended to make clear what judicial avenue a court is taking.  We reported a decision in November, 2012 where a panel of the Superior Court affirmed the concept that modification was a distinct proceeding from contempt.  See P.H.D. v. R.H.D. The idea that a parent suffered a significant change in custody of a child where there are clearly marked legal procedures which distinguish contempt from modification and where there was a “right” way to go about it which was not heeded, creates a disturbing trend.  Moreover, it opens the door to more appeals where the Superior Court will be asked whether the notice of intention to change custody pursuant to contempt powers is “enough”.  This will be fertile ground for appeal but not productive ground. Ironically, from the opinion it appears that the contempt that had been filed was never disposed of, which begs the question of whether this case was appealable in the first instance.

In sum, we have an opinion where substance triumphed over procedure, leaving procedure badly mauled and wondering “What next?”

2016 Pa. Super. 40 (2/18/2016)

 

 

There was a time not so long ago when clients would unload their domestic troubles on lawyers like a cord of rotted wood. They might take care in shopping for the right fit in terms of who would represent them. But once the selection was made, the answer was “Let the lawyer do it.” That’s what they get paid for, right?

True enough, but as the quantity and quality of on line resources have proliferated, legal advice has started to be viewed as an indulgence. Anyone can tell you it’s expensive, and it is. And, there is a huge array of free information on the internet (like this blog) calibrated to be useful.

Millennials, in particular, like to do it themselves. In domestic affairs, they see this as their relationship and they should be able to regulate how it ends. They may grudgingly tolerate advice from others but they see that as a plot to abridge their right and their power to manage their own affairs. Their parents tend to be more practical at least in their own view. “For what I pay a lawyer, I could go to Disney, replace a car or some other entirely useful thing.” All true. Until it bites you in the backside.

In the past couple of weeks here are some of the internet myths we have had to detonate for true believers in the power of the web. Divorces are granted automatically in Pennsylvania after two years. Custody courts automatically impose shared physical (50/50) custody arrangements. The person paying the child support always gets to deduct the children. There is no alimony in Pennsylvania. Every child over 10 gets to decide where he will reside. Courts can’t divide pensions because they belong only to the employed spouses who earned them. All of these myths contain a kernel of truth but are more wrong than right. Not any of the websites we have seen actually misrepresent the law. But none of us relies exclusively on the net for information. We dose it with the information we get from the yoga instructor, the bartender at the favorite restaurant or the well- meaning advice of great uncle Ellwood who left his horrible first wife in 1978 to marry your not so great aunt.

So, does this mean forego Disney, the new car, or the 72” flat screen? Perhaps yes. But if you are doing a divorce where money matters or it is going to affect whether your kid spends two non-consecutive weeks or half the summer with his dope smoking mother, some legal counsel may be in order. There are times when we actually do advise clients that the battle is not worth the personal or economic price. But we had people come to us with agreements they have signed or court orders they never appealed that promise them a lifetime of pain. Like the spouse who assumed that lifetime alimony meant “until he retired”. Or the parent who thought that if she just let father relocate to San Diego with the child, she could always go back to her local court to undo it later. This has become more true over time. We now commonly see executives who once could easily afford the college commitment they signed up for in 2005. Ten years later, their child has been admitted to a college with tuition that consumed more than half of their downsized net income.

Lawyers are not retailers devoted to crafting a “happy” shopping experience. Like physicians we sometimes have to report unhappy results. But the results you get will be directed toward your assets, your children, your experience and not some well-crafted avatar which might seem to be similar to your life experience, but really does not.  Your domestic affairs are about your skin and, like it or not your skin is a custom made suit, not something you found on line or at Kohl’s or Boscov. If you must do it yourself, at least find out whether  it needs to be done, and how best to do it.

 

Tools of the TradeSince the child custody statute was updated in 2010, a considerable about of time and effort on the part of the Superior Court has been spent clarifying various aspects of the law. Among the more pertinent issues related to how the statute was to function is the trial court’s obligation to consider and opine on all of the custody factors. Previous appellate cases have shaped this requirement (or, conversely, the absence of the requirement) where “discrete” issues of custody are being considered or where a substantive change to the custody schedule is occurring.

It is the latter where the Superior Court has recently remanded a case back to the Trial Court with an order for it to fully explore and articulate how they have addressed the custody factors in a given case. In that case, C.A.J. v. D.S.M., 2016 WL 685169, Father filed a contempt petition on the parties 2013 agreed custody order. Within that petition, he sought a significant modification of the custody schedule to award him primary custody.

Their original 2013 agreement provided that Mother had primary physical custody during the school year, and the parties had 50/50 custody from May until September on a week on/week off basis.  Eventually issues arose and Mother relocated without judicial or Father’s approval as required by the Custody statute.  Father filed for contempt of the 2013 custody order and sought to modify custody to have primary physical custody. He did not file a separate modification petition. A 2015 Order was entered by the trial court after a hearing whereby the parties were to share physical custody on a two week on/two week off schedule.

Mother appealed on the basis that the trial court did not consider all of the custody factors, nor did she have notice sufficient to satisfy the due process clause of the Constitution. Her theory was essentially that whether or not the Trial Court can modify a custody order during a contempt hearing rests on the responding party having sufficient notice of a request for modification.  When modifying custody, due process rights attach to the responsive party.  Without sufficient notice, modification cannot occur.  In this case, Father’s contempt petition included a request to modify physical custody of the child.  The Court directed the parties to custody conciliation which both parties participated in and which, by extension, demonstrated mother’s constructive knowledge that the custody order was at issue. Essentially, mother knew that within the contempt the underlying custody order was in contest and potentially subject to change. Accordingly, the Superior Court upheld the Trial Court’s ability to modify the custody order within the contempt action. The Superior Court also relied on case law and Rule 1915.15 which allows for modification of custody/visitation Orders where it is in the best interests of the child.

So while the Superior Court would not disturb the Trial Court’s ability to modify the order, it did take exception with how it addressed the custody factors. The Superior Court found that the Trial Court’s truncated list of custody factors identified in its opinion was insufficient, citing Pennsylvania case law for the requirement that all custody factors be considered.  On that basis, the Superior Court remanded the case back to the trial court for the limited purpose of issuing an opinion addressing all custody factors.

This case does establish that a contempt action with sufficiently pled averments for a modification of custody will be sufficient to establish notice for due process purposes and avoid having to file two petitions or pursue custody and modification on two separate procedural tracts.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter@AaronWeemsAtty.

 

We live in interesting times. We have recently reported on significant cases discussing who has legal standing to seek custody of a child and whether that “standing” comes with a child support obligation.  But one bedrock that has been around for a while is what is called the presumption that a husband is father unless someone proves he had no access or was incapable of procreation.

It has been a presumption which today stands despite the fact that science now allows us to show otherwise. Genetic testing has been around for about 20 years and today it is considered the standard.  But the presumption of paternity is an interesting one. “A” may sleep with “B’s” wife but if wife becomes pregnant and B decides that he wants to play dad, the fact that “A” can prove that he is the real father is of no consequence.  That’s the law of Pennsylvania although this author believes it has some constitutional weaknesses.

In M.L. v. J.G.M, a case decided on January 4, 2016, the two parties were married in 2001.  They separated in late 2011 and divorced in September 2014, they had one child together who is today 10 years old.

As is happening with some frequency, the once separated Father started to have some thoughts about whether his child was, in fact, his child. Today, paternity tests are freely available so he administered one on the child (typically it involves an oral swab) and the test came back excluding him as the father.  Almost two years after separation he filed a petition in Berks County to terminate support.  He also sought blood testing within the court system to confirm that his drugstore test was accurate.  Mother filed to prevent the test.  The Berks County Court ordered the blood test because the marriage was no longer intact and the parties having been divorced several months before the motion was heard.

But the battle did not end there. The Superior Court had to wrestle with the Supreme Court’s ruling in K.E.M. v. P.C.S., 38 A.3d 798 (2012).  There the court held that paternity by estoppel will apply only where the doctrine promotes the best interests of the child.  In that case the father continued to promote his role as father even after learning from a biological viewpoint that the facts were not with him.  The Supreme Court ruling contained an eloquent reflection on how the passage of time leaves the child with no hope of finding the actual parent and the clear harm of losing the only father the child had known.  The language is moving but, unfortunately, science “moved” faster.

In current case as well as an earlier Superior Court case decided in 2011 (R.J.K. v. S.P.K., 32 A.2d 3d 841), the matter was remanded to develop a full record including psychological testimony related to the bond between the child and the presumed father.  The opinion of Judge Lazarus does a thorough job of analyzing what courts are to look to when building that record. But, build it as you may, when the dust settles there are going to be some angry adults and a bewildered child.  Typically we assume that these children are accidents or the product of loose morals on the part of both biological parents.  But not every man who sleeps with a woman gets an honest answer about her marital status or her views on birth control even if he does inquire.

And the forgiving husband who adopts the child of the casual relationship despite the infidelity may not always remain so honorable or caring. The difficulty we face today is that anyone can buy and employ a genetic testing service.  So while a Court may rule that “B” is officially Father in the Courtroom and the schoolhouse, it can’t, in practical terms try to prevent “A” from reaching out to his child or compel “B” to maintain a physical or emotional relationship.  In this case, it appears that damage has been done as J.G.M. terminated contact with the child just after her eighth birthday.  We can label him “dad” and we can compel him to pay support for her. But we can’t make him love her or “fix up” a family for this innocent child.

Almost twenty years ago, I was appointed to a committee of the state bar association to address this presumption issue. I was and, remain in a decided minority when I suggested that there be mandatory paternity testing at the hospital before a child is released.  If that had been done in this case the cards would have been on the table.  And knowing that the testing would be required, many couples would be forced to be more honest early on.  The trouble is that far too often, a secret is kept and the longer it is kept, the more damaging it becomes to the child involved.

Welcome Gift for Coming to PA and Violating a Restraining Order
(Photo Credit: www.wisegeek.com)

 

Back in December an interesting news report appeared out of Arkansas involving two Pennsylvania brothers who robbed a bank in Arkansas while their companion waited in the getaway car with her two children.

What happened next was an excellent example of how the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act can operate to expeditiously reach the right outcome for an interstate custody issue.

The children’s father in Pennsylvania, who had been in a three year legal battle with the children’s mother, immediately traveled to Arkansas after learning of the incident. A few weeks earlier, Mother had left Pennsylvania with the children with the children and two men intending to go to Arizona.  When he arrived in Arkansas, the children were in the custody of the local Department of Human Services and could not be released to him. Presumably due to the circumstances, they were in the initial stages of Arkansas dependency process to determine whether they should be placed in foster care until a determination as to what their long-term placement would be.

Fortunately, it would appear that the UCCJEA operated as intended and the judges presiding over the custody case in Pennsylvania and the dependency judge in Arkansas, respectively, spoke and determined that Pennsylvania had jurisdiction over the children and the right to determine who may take custody of the children. Fortunately, having already arrived in Arkansas, their father was there to take custody and return to Pennsylvania.

No other reports have surfaced as to what happened to the mother. She was in the vehicle, so it is unclear whether she is being charged as an accomplice to the robbery. What is clear, however, is that after having absconded with the children and placed them in imminent danger, even if she is released and returns to Pennsylvania she has severely jeopardized her custodial rights.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter@AaronWeemsAtty.