Increasingly, courts have closely examined the specific decision-making roles of each parent, whether or not the parties share joint custody or one parent is awarded sole custody.

The general rule is that joint or shared custody, requiring both parents to agree on decisions, is inappropriate where parents have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to cooperate in making decisions concerning their children.

In its April 23, 2014 decision in Thorpe v. Hamoet, the Second Department affirmed the determination of Kings County Family Court Judge Anthony Cannataro to award a mother sole medical and educational decision-making authority, and to otherwise award both parents joint decision-making authority with respect to all other custodial matters outside the spheres of medical and educational needs.

Although it was evident to the appellate court that there was some antagonism between the parties, it was also apparent that both parties generally behaved appropriately with their child and in a relatively civilized fashion toward each other. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the parents were so hostile or antagonistic toward each other that they would be unable to put aside their differences for the good of the child.

Sometimes defining sole or joint custody differently, courts have found ways to erode all-or-nothing awards even when parents are antagonistic towards each other. Judges seem comfortable splitting decision-making into distinct areas; giving parents separate “zones” or “spheres” of responsibility.

Thus, in addition to education and medical areas, Courts have granted one parent decision-making authority in the spheres of religion, hygiene, mental health, dentistry, summer activities, extra-curricular activities, weekend activities, social events and finances.

In this fashion, both parents may remain more actively involved in their children’s lives. Still further, if both parents must live within this balance of power, détente between the parents is encouraged. Indeed (continuing the political metaphor), each parent may develop a policy of openness (glasnost), promoting consultation, compromise, and more meaningful exchange of information.

In all events, it would seem that the parents, themselves, are in the best position to allocate the particular subjects as to which there will be required consultation, or required agreement, or specifically-allocated final authority.

Litigation would not seem the best-suited forum for reaching an agreement on these matters. Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR), whether through mediation or the Collaborative Divorce Process, seems a far better choice.

In Thorpe, Meredith A. Lusthaus, Coffinas & Lusthaus, P.C., of Brooklyn, represented the mother. Francine Shraga, of Brooklyn, represented the father.

Two decisions this past month involved joint custody awards despite antagonism between the parents and contested custody proceedings.

In Prohaszka v. Prohaszka, Supreme Court Putnam County Justice Francis A. Nicolai had awarded the divorcing parties joint legal custody of the parties’ children, with the mother having primary physical custody and final decision-making authority. In its February 6, 2013 decision on appeal, the Second Department modified that order to add a provision directing the mother to consult with the father regarding any issues involving the children’s health, medical care, education, religion, and general welfare prior to exercising her final decision-making authority for the children, but otherwise affirmed Justice Nicolai’s order.

Although the antagonism between the parties was evident to the appellate court, it was also apparent that both parties generally behaved appropriately with their children, that they could make parenting decisions together, and that the children were attached to both parents. Under those circumstances, there was a sound and substantial basis in the record for Justice Nicolai to have found that the best interests of the children would be served by awarding the parties joint custody. Similarly, the trial record also supported the determination that primary physical custody should be with the mother and that she should have final decision-making authority.

The court, however, should have directed the plaintiff to consult with the defendant regarding any issues involving the children’s health, medical care, education, religion, and general welfare prior to exercising her final decision-making authority.

In his January 8, 2013 decision in Scott M. v. Ilona M., Kings County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey S. Sunshine awarded the parties joint custody of their son; each parent having access alternating on a weekly basis.

Justice Sunshine did note that a significant factor in determining custody was whether the heated custody dispute, itself, indicated that an award of joint custody would be ineffective. Justice Sunshine cited to the Court of Appeals decision in Braiman v. Braiman, (44 N.Y.2d 584), which rejected joint or shared custody where the parties are in bitter conflict and do not agree to such an arrangement. That decision concluded:

Joint custody is encouraged primarily as a voluntary alternative for relatively stable, amicable parents behaving in mature civilized fashion. As a court ordered arrangement imposed upon already embattled and embittered parents, accusing one another of serious vices and wrongs, it can only enhance familial chaos.

[Question: If the children live primarily with one parent and that parent has final decision-making authority, what does “joint custody” mean? Is it merely a psychological benefit for the parent and the child? Does it entitle the non-primary custodian to make decisions in emergency situations when the other parent is not available? Braiman, itself, noted that “joint”, or, as it is sometimes called “divided”, custody reposes in both parents a shared responsibility for and control of a child’s upbringing. In Bast v. Rossoff, 167 Misc.2d 749, 752 (Sup. Ct. 1995), affd, 239 A.D.2d 106 (1st Dept 1997), affd as mod and remanded, 91 N.Y.2d 723 (1998), it was stated “In New York the term ‘joint custody’ generally is used to refer only to joint legal custody, or joint decision making.”]

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