Following the ‘Wiseman’ Standard in Pa. Custody Battles Is Unwise
Although the so-called Wiseman standard, the standard by which shared custody arrangements were determined, stood for many years, the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of P.J.P. v. M.M., 2018 Pa. Super. 100, has officially declared the Wiseman standard obsolete and no longer applicable to Pennsylvania child custody matters.
In the matter of P.J.P., a custody case, the father appealed a decision in the trial court regarding his petition to modify a custody order that he believed was not sufficiently favorable for his custody goals.
The father and the mother are a divorced couple who obtained a child custody order in April 2016. This order granted the mother primary physical custody of the child. In January 2017, the father sought more custody, specifically shared physical custody, and filed a petition to modify.
At the trial, in August 2017, the court made many findings of facts that are directly relevant to its ultimate decision to deny granting shared custody to the father. For example, when the mother has custody she sends the father many photographs and videos and encourages the child to call the father. By contrast, the father does not want to call the mother during his custody times and sends no photographs and videos to the mother. The mother further claimed, and the father admitted, that he has insulted the mother in the presence of the child. He also admitted to telling the child to be sure to look up the instant case on Google Scholar when he is older to know what happened during the case. The mother is also conscientious in ensuring that the father has nice gifts from the child for holidays and such, while the father makes only modest efforts to reciprocate. The parties also had disagreements over the procedure and process for dropping the child off at preschool in the morning. The mother claimed the father refused to get the child ready and just dropped him off at her house, while the father claimed the mother “unilaterally” changed the procedure. Co-parenting counseling was also attempted by the parties. Unfortunately, while the mother was trying to fully invest herself in said counseling, The father refused to meaningfully participate, and the counselor believed the counseling was “not going anywhere.” Of course, the father has a different interpretation of much of the above, but the court made its findings, which favored the mother, after a complete review of the facts, testimony and evidence.
On appeal, the father challenged the denial of shared custody, arguing it was contrary to the best interests of the child. The Superior Court first noted that the trial court made certain credibility determinations that were within its discretion. The court then mentioned that child custody is governed by 23 Pa.C.S.A. Section 5328, which lays out 16 factors for the court to consider when making a custody determination. Superior Court observed that the trial court analyzed each factor and noted that most were either inapplicable or weighed equally for both; however, there were four factors (namely the likelihood to encourage and permit contact with the other party, availability of extended family, attempts to turn the child against the other parent, and the level of conflict and willingness to cooperate with the other party) which weighed heavily on the mother’s side. No factor weighed heavily on the father’s side.
The father argued that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to apply the Weisman standard. In Weisman v. Wall, 718 A.2d 844 (Pa. Super.1998), the court ruled that courts must make four findings when ruling on shared custody “both parents must be fit, capable of making reasonable child rearing decisions and willing and able to provide love and care for their children; both parents must evidence a continuing desire for active involvement in the child’s life; both parents must be recognized by the child as a source of security and love; a minimal degree of cooperation between the parents must be possible.” The father further argued that since he and the mother, in his view, meet the above four factors, shared custody should be awarded.
Superior Court ruled that the father’s reliance on Weisman is misplaced. As noted above, Weisman was decided in 1998 while Section 5328 became law in 2011. The court does not believe the difference between Weisman and Section 5328 is trivial. Specifically Weisman “required the court, before awarding shared custody, ‘to make at least a minimal finding that the parties were able to cooperate before awarding shared custody” while, under Section 5328, the court “must determine the best interest of the child by considering all relevant factors, including but not limited to, ‘the level of conflict between the parties and the willingness and ability of the parties to cooperate with one another.”’
Superior Court noted that the plain language of Section 5328 contradicts Weisman. Unlike Weisman, the court is not obliged to make any specific findings before awarding shared custody. Instead, the court must consider all 16 of the relevant factors, and poor cooperation need not be dispositive. In sum, therefore, Superior Court specifically described Weisman as obsolete.
Finally, the court explained that its citing to Weisman in the recent case of R.S. v. T.T., 1133 A.3d 1254 (Pa.Super.2015) does not belie the above analysis. In R.S., the court used the Weisman factors to supplement its own analysis where it seemed Section 5328 did not appear to lead to a reasonable conclusion in light of the available evidence. Moreover, the court in R.S. never once said trial courts “must” make Weisman findings. Instead, Weismanmerely holds persuasive value as the its factors have been assimilated into Section 5328.
Upon full review of the decision, it appears that P.J.P. has hammered the final nail into the casket of the Weisman analysis. Weisman, for all intents and purposes, no longer appears to be the law for Pennsylvania child custody.