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New Statute Modifies Pennsylvania Child Custody Orders

In January 2011, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a new statute regarding child custody. Since its passage, Pennsylvania courts have attempted to navigate its new provisions when applying it to the various custody cases that have come before them. One such case is the recent Superior Court matter of J.R.M. v. J.E.A. , 2011 Pa.Super. 263, 33 A.3d 647 (2011), which was litigated pursuant to the new Pennsylvania custody statute.

 

The matter of J.R.M. v. J.E.A. went to trial regarding petitions for custody by both the father, J.R.M., and the mother, J.E.A., with regard to their child. The trial court entered an order awarding the mother primary physical custody and the father partial physical custody according to a very complicated arrangement that relegated J.R.M. to what is known colloquially as “visitation” to account for the child’s need to nurse and a very restrictive custody arrangement upon the child’s weaning.

 

Upon the issuance of the above-described custody order, J.R.M. filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. His appeal was based upon the failure of the trial court to file a written opinion pursuant to the requirements of the new custody statute (see Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a)(2)(ii)). J.R.M. also appealed on the basis that the trial court failed to “engage in a fact-specific, case-specific analysis of the best interest factors and made no findings to support its legal conclusion” and failed to make “findings that such severe restrictions [after the child no longer needed to nurse] were necessary,” according to the opinion.

Pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. §5328(a), a section of the new custody statute, a trial court, when making a ruling on a custody issue, must specifically address and consider 16 different factors that impact the custody of a child. The trial court simply failed to specifically address and consider the aforementioned factors when making its ruling as described above. The Superior Court noted that the trial court merely focused on the child’s need to nurse and the parties’ difficulty communicating and did not mention any of the other factors as required by the new custody statute. Indeed, the Superior Court specifically stated that all of the 16 factors must be considered by a trial court entering a custody order. By failing to consider all of the factors, the Superior Court concluded that the trial court erred as a matter of law, and, consequently, vacated the trial court’s order and remanded the case for further findings of fact.

J.R.M.’s appeal also argued that the trial court’s restrictions on his custody periods were imposed without any stated justification by the trial court. The Superior Court noted that an award for partial custody generally does not include any significant restrictions unless there would be some detriment to the child at issue without them as justified by the evidentiary record.

The Superior Court observed that the trial court never indicated why the restrictions are necessary; indeed, “the trial court made no finding that father was unfit or unable to care for child on his own, or that he posed any sort of threat to child if left entirely unattended,” according to the opinion.

Similarly, despite ruling that it was a long-term goal for J.R.M. to have custody of the child at his residence and/or overnight, the trial court did not allow him to have custody at his home and/or overnight immediately, without offering any explanation as to why. The Superior Court again observed, “The trial court made no finding that visitation in father’s home would be detrimental to child, that father’s home was not equipped to have child visit during the day or for overnight visitation, or that father or his fiancée posed a threat to child.”

The Superior Court also noted there was nothing on the record indicating issues with J.R.M’s cohabitating fiancée or why the child could not travel to his home once weaned. Considering the above, the Superior Court ruled that the above restrictions upon J.R.M. were unreasonable in light of the evidence presented at trial.

Ultimately, after consideration of all of the above, the Superior Court ruled that the trial court’s order was vacated and the matter was remanded because the trial court failed to adequately and expressly consider all 16 factors pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. §5328(a) and additionally failed to provide any justification for any of the restrictions placed on J.R.M.’s custody periods.

The matter of J.R.M. v. J.E.A. is, perhaps, the first of many cases to be appealed in the near future in order to secure adequate adherence by Pennsylvania’s trial courts to the standards set by the new custody statute. Therefore, Pennsylvania’s custody judges must be vigilant and expressly and clearly address all required aspects of the new custody statute when entering custody orders. Otherwise, their orders are likely to be overturned.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on July 17, 2012 which can be seen here and reprinted in Volume 34 Issue No. 3 (October 2012) of Pennsylvania Family Lawyer.

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