Sole Legal Custody Means Solo Decision-Making
In the matter of M.P. v. M.P., 54 A.3d 950 the Superior Court of Pennsylvania clarified the extent of authority of a parent who enjoys sole legal custody s/he has over a child.
In M.P., the mother of the child at issue in the case is from Ecuador. Most of mother’s family, including her own parents, still reside in Ecuador. Mother was granted primary custody of the child in July 2009 and Father was awarded supervised visits for two hours per week. Despite receiving such minimal custody, Father did not take advantage of it to spend time with his child. In or about November 2011, after a hearing, Mother was awarded sole legal custody of the child. Mother filed a petition to permit her to take the child to Ecuador for three weeks, a trip which Father opposed. The lower court entered an order prohibiting Mother from taking the trip to Ecuador which led to Mother filing an appeal to Superior Court and it is the Superior Court’s decision that is the focus of this article.
Mother wanted to take the child to Ecuador as it is her own ancestral home and most of her family lives there. It was not feasible for Mother’s family to come to the United States as there was testimony that Mother’s parents would have difficulty in securing visas to come to the United States and Mother’s mother has health issues which makes flying difficult for her.
Father opposed Mother’s proposed trip to Ecuador as he views Ecuador as a third-world nation filled with potentially dangerous diseases and crime. He also had concerns about the compatibility of the child’s health insurance coverage with Ecuadorian hospitals and the difficulty retrieving the child if something unfortunate happened to the Mother.
The lower court, by its own volition, investigated international law and the terms of the Hague Convention regarding international custody arrangements and had concerns regarding Father’s options to retrieve the child if Mother failed to return her to the United States.
When reviewing this matter, the Superior Court reversed the lower court’s decision and permitted Mother to go to Ecuador with the child for her proposed three week trip.
The Superior Court first looked at what it means for a parent to have sole legal custody. Legal custody is the right and ability to make major decisions for the child. Sole legal custody is the granting of one parent exclusive and final right to make major decisions; indeed, specifically exclusive from the other parent. The Superior Court ruled that the lower court, by allowing Father to block Mother’s trip to Ecuador, enabled him to undermine Mother’s sole legal custody, and, essentially, render it meaningless. As a result, the Superior Court ruled that if a party has sole legal custody, the other parent cannot move to prevent it from being exercised but for a formal petition to modify the custodial arrangement.
In terms of the lower court’s reliance upon international treaties and the Hague Convention, it is notable that Father did not raise them at the hearing but the lower court took judicial notice of them. Regardless, the Superior Court noted that it is not unusual for a court to take judicial notice of such things, so the lower court’s reliance upon them was not objectionable, at least in principle. Instead, the Superior Court took issue with the fact that the lower court relied on that information after the hearing had concluded and without notice to the parties. The Superior Court ruled that a party has the right to be heard as to the propriety of a court taking judicial notice of an issue, especially one as critical as international law.
Based on the above, the Superior Court reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling that sole legal custody cannot be undermined or otherwise disturbed without an order altering the custodial arrangement and a court taking judicial notice of an issue must indicate doing so on the record and allow the parties involved to address it.