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.

Absent a court order specifying which parent is entitled to make educational decisions, the New York City Department of Education will follow the instructions of the primary physical custodian.

The policy was upheld in the October 22, 2013 decision of the First Department in Jennings v. Walcott. The appellate court reversed  the determination of  Supreme Court, New York County Justice Alexander W. Hunter, Jr., which had declared arbitrary and capricious the Department’s policy of deferring in educational decisions to the parent with primary physical custody. Justice Hunter had ordered the Department to include the father as a joint legal guardian on his child’s school file.

The policy of the Department of Education is to take direction from the parent with primary physical custody where, as here:

the divorced parents of a student have joint legal custody of the student;

the parents are unable to agree on a decision as to the student’s education; and

there is no court order specifying who is entitled to make educational decisions.

The Department had adopted this policy to avoid becoming entangled in custody disputes.

In Jennings, the First Department held that given the options available to the Department for resolving such a disagreement, it could not be said that the policy was without a rational basis in the record. It was not, therefore, arbitrary and capricious.

The appellate court pointed out that this policy did not affect the father’s legal rights as a parent with joint legal, but not primary physical, custody. The father was free to pursue a modification of his judgment of divorce to provide for joint decision-making as to the child’s education.

The opinion did not recite whether or not any stipulation of settlement incorporated into the father’s divorce decree contained a decision-making clause, or whether such a stipulation or the judgment merely declared the parents would share joint legal custody. Similarly, it was not stated whether the Department was refusing to honor an agreement that was incorporated by reference into the divorce judgment.

However, to be prudent, all parental rights should be specifically set forth in the judgment of divorce.

Kathy H. Chang, of counsel to Michael A. Cardozo, New York City’s Corporation Counsel, represented the Department. Thomas D. Shanahan, P.C., represented the father.

Count the overnights. “Legal” custody or decision-making power does not matter. Child Support is only payable to the parent with the children the majority of the overnights. If overnights are equally shared, the parent with the higher income is deemed to be the noncustodial parent for C.S.S.A. purposes.

Such is the rule of law made clear in two recent Appellate Division cases. In its June 28, 2013 decision in Leonard v. Leonard, the Fourth Department held that despite  the father having sole legal custody, as parenting time was equally shared and the father had the higher income, the father would be deemed the noncustodial parent and obligated to pay child support.

In Rubin v. Della Salla, an April 18, 2013 decision of the First Department, where each parent had spheres of decision-making, it was held that the father with whom the child spent 56% of the overnights could not, as a matter of law, be ordered to pay child support under the C.S.S.A.

In Leonard, upheld the decision of Monroe County Supreme Court J.H.O. to award the husband sole legal custody. The wife sought joint legal custody, bu the Fourth Department agreed that the parents’ acrimonious relationship and inability to communicate effectively with respect to the needs and activities of the children made joint custody not feasible. Moreover, the J.H.O. did not abuse his discretion in failing to split decision-making “zones of influence.”

The Fourth Department, however, held that it was error for the J.H.O. to award child support to the husband. Child support should have been awarded to the wife. As the residency arrangement was shared, and neither parent had the children for a majority of the time, the party with the higher income was to be deemed to be the noncustodial parent for purposes of child support.

Here, the residency schedule affords the parties equal time with the children. Inasmuch as the husband’s income exceeded that of the wife (at the time of trial, the husband earning $134,924.48 annually, with the J.H.O. imputing income of $25,000 to the wife), the husband was the “noncustodial” parent. As such, he must pay child support to the wife.

The Fourth Department acknowledged that the authority presented by the wife involved awards of joint legal custody, whereas the husband, here, was awarded sole legal custody. That fact, however, should not affect the child support determination.

Although the award of sole legal custody to plaintiff allows him to make important decisions in the children’s lives, that decision-making authority does not increase his child-related costs. A parent’s child-related costs are dictated by the amount of time he or she spends with the children.

Continue Reading Parenting Time, Not Legal Custody, Determines Entitlement to Child Support

Where the parties’ joint legal custody agreement only provided for each parent to have equal input on all major decisions, including education, but did not provide for conflict resolution, the mother, after a hearing, was awarded temporary decision-making authority. Such was the holding of the April 11, 2013 decision of the Appellate Division, First Department, in Sequeira v. Sequeira.

The appellate court held that on the motion for such relief, New York County Supreme Court Justice Lori Sattler properly exercised her discretion in determining that it was in the child’s best interest to award the mother that power.

The parties had agreed to joint legal custody, which their agreement defined as including equal input with respect to all major decisions, including education. They did not, however, provide for a situation, such as the one presented, where the parents could not agree on where their child should attend school. The failure of the parents to agree on this issue thus presented the change in circumstances necessary for the court to modify the parties’ arrangement to protect the best interests of the child.

The record supported the temporary award of educational decision-making to the mother. The father’s due process rights were honored by the fair hearing held by Justice Sattler. He was permitted to cross-examine the mother, testify on his own behalf, and argue his case. As to this argument to the appellate court that he was denied an opportunity to hire an attorney, he never made a request to do so.

Comment: “Joint custody” is a nebulous term. Thus, care should be taken to carefully define what the parties intend by the use of that term. If shared decision-making is intended, the particular subjects or criteria requiring the parents’ agreement should be specified. Moreover, the procedure  to resolve conflict must be detailed. The steps to be taken before asking a court to intervene should be made clear. Whether the parents are required to work with a therapist, consult an expert, or engage a mediator as a condition to making a judicial application should be set forth. Moreover, although in New York, the delegation of decision-making to a third party other than the court may be against public policy, providing some authority to an agreed-upon tie breaker may be determined to be in the best interests of the children.

On this appeal, the father represented himself. The mother was represented by Lara Ott of Stein & Ott, LLP, of Manhattan.

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.”]

Continue Reading Ordering Joint Custody in Contested Divorce Custody Proceedings

Passport Boy.jpgCourts have recognized that it is in the best interests of a child to travel with a parent.  A court may provide relief when one parent unreasonably withholds consent from the other parent to travel with a child and compel a divorced parent to cooperate with the other parent to secure a passport for a child (Arroyo v. Agosta [2nd Dept. 2010]).

Thus, in Anthony McK. v. Dawn M., 2009 WL 8527772, Kings County Family Court Judge Paula J. Hepner, authorized a mother to obtain a passport to obtain a passport for the parties’ 11-year old daughter, over the objection of the father (indeed, the father had entered his daughter into the State Department’s Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program). Moreover,the child was specifically authorized to travel with the mother.

Judge Hepner also noted the Federal provisions relating to the issuance of a passport to a minor:

[M]inors under the age of sixteen are required to appear in person when applying for a passport [22 CFR 51.28(a)(1)pdf]. Both parents are required to execute the application on behalf of a minor under the age of sixteen when applying for a passport for the first time and provide documentary proof of parentage [22 CFR 51.28(a)(2)]. One parent may execute a passport application for a child if s/he provides “documentary evidence that such person … has sole custody of the minor” in the form of “an order of a court of competent jurisdiction granting sole legal custody to the applying parent containing no travel restrictions inconsistent with the issuance of the passport, or specifically authorizing the applying parent to obtain a passport for the minor, regardless of custodial arrangements; or specifically authorizing the travel of the minor with the applying parent or legal guardian” [22 CFR § 51.28(a)(3)(ii)(E)]. Before a passport is issued, the parent of a minor may file objections “so long as the objecting party provides sufficient documentation of his or her custodial rights or mother authority to object” [22 CFR § 51.28(c)(1)].

Generally, passport regulations and forms may be found online. For minors under 16, go here. For 16- and 17-year olds, go here.

Forms are also available online. Under ordinary circumstances, it is necessary for a passport application (Form DS-11) to be executed and presented, in person, by the minor and both parents at a passport acceptance facility (usually a post office). However, if both parents are not to be in attendance, then it is necessary for the non-appearing parent to execute a Statement of Consent (Form DS-3053), unless a court order provides otherwise.

It is always advisable for a parent to travel with a consent from (Travel Consent form.pdf), signed by the other parent and notarized, authorizing the parent to travel with, make arrangements for, and make health care decisions concerning the child.

tugging child.jpgIn fact, we may have all failed the Y. family children (name deleted at the request of the family). Their parents have spent the last four years fighting in court. Their custody litigation will likely last at least another two years.

The result: one child who may be suicidal; the other self-mutilating.

Reading appellate court decisions cannot possibly reveal the nuances faced by sitting Family Court Judges. This, then is not a critique of any one particular decision. Rather, we must acknowledge that the overburdened judicial system may no longer be able to serve “the best interests of the children.” In fact, the court system itself may be hurting our children far more than any decision.

After four years of litigation, including the year needed to obtain this decision, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Matter of Dana H. v. James Y., sentenced the Y.-family children to another two years of court fights . . . . unless their parents can get their act together.

James Y. and Dana Y. H. (now-remarried) divorced in 2004. At that time they had agreed to share joint custody, with the mother having primary physical custody. However, the mother relocated with the children to South Carolina without the permission of either the father or the Family Court.

As a result of the mother’s relocation, physical custody was transferred to the father. He moved with the children to live with his mother.

Both parties then petitioned the Family Court for sole custody of the children, with the mother also finally seeking for permission to relocate the children to live with her and her new husband in South Carolina.

After a trial conducted over the span of a year, Nassau County Family Court Judge Conrad Singer by his June 23, 2008 order determined that the mother would be awarded sole custody of the children, provided that within six months she returned to live in New York.

On the other hand, if the mother refused to return to New York, it would be the father who would have physical custody of the children, but the mother would have final decision-making authority concerning the children’s welfare, education, medical, and mental health issues, except in the event of an emergency.

Ms. H., indeed, elected not to relocate to New York.

Continue Reading Has the Court System Failed the Y. Children?

Sad child torn picture.jpgIn an effort to help parents in high-conflict decision-making disputes, New York courts are now appointing “Parenting Coordinators.”

Professor Andrew Schepard of the Hofstra University School of Law in his  article, “Parenting Coordinator for High Conflict Parent” N.Y.L.J., 5/8/03, p. 3 col. 1, explained the role of Parenting Coordinator as “a combination educator, mediator and sometimes-therapist who helps parents develop conflict-management skills and decides disputes if they cannot. . . . [B]y supervising parenting and resolving conflict, a Parenting Coordinator helps high-conflict parents develop a tolerable working relationship (usually parallel as opposed to cooperative parenting) for the benefit of their children.”

In her 2007 article “Working with Parenting Coordinators” in the Summer, 2007 issue of the Family Advocate, the publication of the American Bar Association’s Section of Family Law, Eve Orlow, Ph.D., noted that a Parenting Coordinator mixes counseling and parent education with mediation and arbitration.

New York’s 8th Judicial District (the extreme west) has formalized the appointment process. Its court rules note:

Parenting coordination is a child-focused alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process in which a mental health or legal professional with mediation training and experience assists high conflict parents to implement their parenting plan by facilitating the resolution of their disputes in a timely manner, educating parenting about children’s needs. With prior approval of the parties and the court, the PC may make decisions within the scope of the court order or appointment contract.

The overall objective of parenting coordination is to assist parents in high conflict to implement their parenting plan, to monitor compliance with the details of the plan, to resolve conflicts regarding their children and the parenting plan in a timely manner, and to protect and sustain safe, healthy and meaningful parent-child relationships. Parenting coordination is a quasi-legal, mental health, alternative dispute resolution process that combines assessment, education, case management, conflict management and, upon consent, sometimes decision making functions.

New York courts seem to favor therapeutic or forensic evaluation backgrounds, rather than mediation skills and experience. Moreover, as Parenting Coordinators in New York are without final decision-making power, they may simply add another layer to the judicial process; in some instances only fueling the bitterness of one or both parents.

New York’s judiciary securely guards its exclusive power to make custody and visitation decisions.  Thus, in its October, 2011 decision in Silbowitz v. Silbowitz, the Appellate Division, Second Department reminded us that:

Although a court may properly appoint a Parenting Coordinator to mediate between parties and oversee the implementation of their court-ordered parenting plan, a court may not delegate to a Parenting Coordinator the authority to resolve issues affecting the best interests of the children.

Continue Reading Are Parenting Coordinators Too Little, Too Late in Custody and Visitation Disputes?

Rip up contract 3.jpgShlomo Scholar and Shoshana Timinisky married in 2005. They had one child the next year.  The year after that they entered a stipulation of settlement to resolve their divorce action.

Included in that stipulation was the parties agreement that Ms. Timinisky would have sole custody of the parties’ child. However, the parties also agreed that custody rights be limited by an agreement to share decision-making on all issues relating to the child’s education. The parties pre-selected an arbitrator to resolve their failure to agree on such issues.

Such a disagreement arose. However, in a September 9, 2010 order, Queens County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Raffaele denied the father’s motion to enforce the parties’ stipulation. Instead, without a hearing, the mother was granted sole decision-making authority with respect to the child’s education in the event that the parties were unable to agree to a parenting coordinator (traditionally employed to facilitate parent communication and the mediation of disputes).  Justice Raffaele also disqualified “a certain individual from arbitrating issues regarding the education of the child.” Finally, on its own motion, Justice Raffaele enjoined Mr. Scholar from bringing any further motions without the permission of the Supreme Court.

In an August 9, 2011 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Scholar v. Timinisky, that Order was affirmed. The appellate court ruled that Justice Raffaele properly determined that a change of circumstances required a modification of the parties’ stipulation of settlement to protect the best interests of the child. New York’s best interest standard was to be applied to resolve a dispute regarding parental joint decision-making authority.

Continue Reading Court Avoids Parents' Agreement to Arbitrate Disputes Over Education of Child