Best Interests of the Child

The mother had refused to agree to the vaccination of the children, resulting in one child being prohibited from school. In a March 30, 2022, decision in Matter of Soper v. Soper, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the modification of a custody stipulation to give the father sole decision-making authority with regard to the children’s medical care.

The parties were the formerly-married parents of three children. Pursuant to their 2018 custody and parental access stipulation that was incorporated but not merged into their 2019 judgment of divorce, the parties agreed to joint legal custody of the children. They agreed to defer medical decisions for the children to specified pediatricians.Continue Reading Refusal to Vaccinate Children Results in Change of Decision-Making

Is resolving a disagreement between parents as to whether to vaccinate a child against Covid too “political” to be decided? Three recent decisions tackle this issue. The Court may shield itself from making the bottom-line decision by deciding which parent should decide.

Should deciding who will be the decision-maker be the rule when parents disagree; or should parents be able to turn to the courts for the answer to one question without changing how they will make decisions on other questions in the future?

In other contexts, judges have been tasked with making literal life-and-death decisions. On occasion, they must decide whether to override the parents’ decision to discontinue life-sustaining treatment of their terminally ill minor child. See, Matter of DH,  15 Misc. 3d 565, 834 N.Y.S.2d 623 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. 2007). In Matter of Matthew V. (Lynette G.), 59 Misc. 3d 288, 68 N.Y.S.3d 796 (Fam. Ct. Kings Co. 2017), the Court transferred decision-making authority from the mother of a 14-year-old child to the child services agency for the purpose of consenting to chemotherapy treatment to which the mother was opposed.

However, there seems to be a different approach to resolving parental conflicts because of the current political climate.Continue Reading To Vaccinate Or Not To Vaccinate — That Is The Question . . . But Will A Court Answer It?

Can a court order a parent to impose discipline on children who voluntarily refuse to engage in court-ordered visitation with the other parent? Yes, said Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger in his September 18, 2020 opinion in Matthew A. v. Jennifer A., enforcing a separation agreement’s schedule. The parents had determined what was in their children’s best interests; it was the Court’s job to help them “drive the bus,” using the parents’ authority to impose discipline on children, as well as the Court’s contempt powers, to enforce that schedule.

The parties were the parents of three boys, 10, 12 and 14, who resided primarily with their mother under a separation agreement that was less than two years old. Because of the distance between the parents’ homes, the father’s agreed-upon one midweek dinner with the boys was not specified. However, the agreement provided that if the father moved closer to the mother’s home, such would constitute a substantial change in circumstances permitting the father to seek a modification.

A year after the divorce, the father did move closer to the mother’s home. The father filed a motion seeking to expanded his alternate weekend time with the children to include Sunday overnights. He also sought to hold the mother in contempt for her alleged failure to follow the original schedule. For her part, the mother filed her own visitation modification petition seeking fewer visitation hours alleging, “the children’s wishes have changed;” the children did not want to have any dinner visits with their father if they had organized activities after school.

At a preliminary appearance, Justice Dollinger warned the mother that he was ordering the mother to restrict the children’s privileges and access to extracurricular activities if the children continued to fail to attend visitation. Justice Dollinger warned that he could hold a residential parent in contempt if the parents failed to strictly enforce the disciplinary restrictions set forth in a court order.Continue Reading Making Mom Make the Kids Visit Dad

Leaving parenting-time decisions to the future agreement of the parents is not a great idea, particularly with quarreling parents. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its February, 2019 decision in Cabano v. Petrella.

In that case, the parents had entered into a December, 2013 so-ordered stipulation which, among other things, reaffirmed their joint legal custody, reaffirmed the mother’s residential custody, and set forth a detailed parental access schedule. That arrangement remained substantively in effect in a so-ordered modification stipulation entered in October, 2016.

In June, 2017, the father petitioned for a modification of the parental access schedule (apparently at least the third proceeding after parenting rights were initially established). After a hearing, Suffolk County Family Court Referee Kerri N. Lechtrecker granted the father additional parental access with the child.

Further, the Referee modified the number of hours of access to which each party was entitled on the mother’s birthday, the father’s birthday, and the child’s birthday. The order provided, in effect, that the parties each would have parental access with the child on his or her own birthday, and on the child’s birthday, if the birthday was during the other party’s parental access, for two hours on a school day and for four hours on a non-school day. The order required the parties to cooperate in reaching an agreement on the details.

The mother appealed. The Second Department modified that order.Continue Reading Don’t Leave Future Parenting-Time Decisions for Later Agreement

At times, a court must delicately balance the best interests of the children and their parents with contract rights, religious matters, ethical and social values, and constitutional principles and individual rights. That balance is remarkably reflected in the August 16, 2017 decision in Weisberger v. Weisberger, of the Appellate Division, Second Department. There, the Court concluded:

Courts do not always have the perfect solution for all of the complexities and contradictions that life may bring — the parties must forge a way forward as parents despite their differences.

The Weisbergers were married in 2002. In 2005, the mother told the father that she could not tolerate having sexual relations with men, and that she was sexually attracted to women. The parties were divorced in 2009. The judgment incorporated a stipulation of settlement under which the parties agreed to joint legal custody of the two daughters and one son of the marriage, with the mother having primary residential custody. The father would be with the children for a two-hour period once per week after school (to be increased to twice per week for the son when he turned eight years old, for the purpose of religious study). The father would also have overnight visitation every other Friday after school until Saturday evening for the observance of the Sabbath; for two consecutive weeks every summer; and an alternating schedule for holidays.

Central to the issues raised on appeal, the stipulation contained the following religious upbringing clause:

“Parties agree to give the children a Hasidic upbringing in all details, in home or outside of home, compatible with that of their families. Father shall decide which school the children attend. Mother to insure that the children arrive in school in a timely manner and have all their needs provided.”

In 2012, more than three years after the divorce, at which time the children were nine, seven (the son), and five years old, respectively, the father moved (1) for sole legal and residential custody of the children, as well as final decision-making authority over medical and dental issues, and issues of mental health; (2) limiting the mother to supervised therapeutic visitation with the children; and (3) to enforce the religious upbringing clause so as to require the mother to direct the children to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Jewish Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy at all times and to require the mother, herself, to practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy.Continue Reading Balancing the Best Interests of Children with Religious, Contract, and Individual Rights

We are not moving croppedFor the second time this month, the Second Department prevented a wife from relocating with the children “locally” when the move would have limited the husband’s substantial involvement in the children’s daily lives. In its January 18, 2017 decision in Lipari v. Lipari, the appellate court affirmed the prohibition of a mother’s proposed relocation from Valley Cottage, in Rockland County, to Rye, in Westchester County, a distance of 17 miles. Only a week earlier, in DeFilippis v. DeFilippis, the Second Department prevented a wife from relocating from Floral Park to East Hampton [last week’s blog post].

In Lipari, under the parties’ divorce settlement the parties shared joint legal custody of their two children, with the mother having primary residential custody. The father had overnight visitation on alternating weekends and certain overnight visitation with the children during each week and during certain school breaks and holidays. With the mother remaining in the Valley Cottage marital residence, the father rented a two-bedroom condominium approximately five minutes away.Continue Reading Mother Cannot Relocate With Children 17 Miles From Valley Cottage to Rye

We are not moving croppedIn its January 11, 2017 decision in DeFilippis v. DeFilippis, the Appellate Division, Second Department, prevented a wife from relocating with the children from Floral Park to East Hampton, a move that would have curtailed the husband’s involvement in the children’s daily lives, school, and extracurricular activities.

The wife commenced this action for divorce. While the action was pending, the wife sought to relocate. The wife claimed that the move would enhance the children’s lives economically, emotionally, and educationally.

The husband opposed the relocation, contending that if the children moved to East Hampton he would be unable to remain involved in their daily lives, school, or extracurricular activities, as he would see them only on the weekends.

Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Hope Schwartz Zimmerman granted the wife’s relocation motion, and the husband appealed. The Second Department reversed (the appellate court had stayed the relocation order pending the appeal).Continue Reading Mother Denied Relocation With Children From Floral Park to East Hampton

No one is more affected by custody determinations than the children. On the other hand, the courts strain to prevent children from having to testify in front of their parents.

In Matter of John V. v. Sarah W., the Appellate Division, Third Department, in its October 20, 2016 affirmed a change of physical custody to the father. Doing so, however, the court noted that it had been improper to allow a child of 12 to testify in front of the parents’ lawyers in the absence of the parents.

In 2009, the parents had agreed to joint legal custody of their then seven-year old son, with primary physical custody to the mother and parenting time to the father. In July 2014, after the child reported to the father that the mother’s live-in fiancé “ha[d] been hitting” him, the father commenced this proceeding seeking primary physical custody of the child. Following a fact-finding hearing, which included testimony given by the child outside the presence of the parties but in the presence of counsel, Broome County Family Court Judge Rita Connerton modified the prior order of custody by awarding primary physical custody to the father and reasonable parenting time to the mother. The mother appealed and the Third Department affirmed.Continue Reading Shielding the Child in Custody Proceedings

Children in balanceOn the night of August 24, 2013, the father received an email from the mother stating that she and the children had moved from East Hampton to Westhampton Beach—a distance of about 32 miles. Under their divorce settlement stipulation entered just 3 months earlier, it was agreed that the parties would share joint custody of their two children. The mother was to have residential custody of the children, subject to parenting time by the father from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, from 4:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, and on alternate weekends (i.e., on 8 out of 11 days).

In September, 2013, the father moved to enjoin the mother from relocating. At the ensuing hearing, the father testified that he normally works from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. on weekdays. He testified that it usually took him about five minutes after finishing work to drive to the former marital residence in East Hampton to pick up the children for visitation. He further testified that it now took him 50 minutes to drive from his home in East Hampton to the mother’s new home in Westhampton Beach.

The mother testified that she moved because she had voluntarily changed jobs from a bank located in Bridgehampton to a bank located in Medford, and that the move cut 30 minutes off her new commute in each direction. She testified that her total compensation at the new job was comparable to her total compensation at her old job. She further testified that she moved to be closer to her parents in Riverhead. She testified that the children saw her parents about twice a month when they lived in the former marital residence in East Hampton, and about once a week after the move to Westhampton Beach.

Sufflok County Supreme Court Justice Stephen M. Behar granted the father’s motion to enjoin the mother’s relocation. The mother appealed.Continue Reading Father’s Frequent Weekday Visitation Precludes Mother's 32-mile Relocation

Two of three November 5, 2014 custody decisions of the Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed Family Court determinations.

In the only affirmance in Mondschein v. Mondschein, the Second Department upheld the order of Westchester County Family Court Judge David Klein which, after a hearing, granted a father’s petition to modify the custody provisions of the parties’ divorce (2011) stipulation of settlement, awarding the father sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ two younger children, with supervised visitation to the mother. Affirming Judge Klein, the Second Department noted:

Since custody determinations necessarily depend to a great extent upon an assessment of the character and credibility of the parties and witnesses, deference is accorded the Family Court’s findings. Therefore, its findings should not be set aside unless they lack a sound and substantial basis in the record.

Here, contrary to the mother’s contention, the appellate court found that Judge Klein had properly considered the totality of the circumstances, and that the record supported his determination that there had been a sufficient change in circumstances requiring a change in custody to protect the best interests of the parties’ two younger children. That record included the hearing testimony and the recommendation of the court-appointed forensic evaluator.

In Burke v. Cogan, the Second Department reversed the determination of Suffolk County Family Court Judge Martha Luft that had dismissed the petition of a mother to modify a prior custody order by awarding her sole residential custody of the parties’ 13 year-old child. The appellate court awarded the mother such custody.Continue Reading Appellate Reversals of Custody Decisions