NEW CASE LIMITS JUDGE’S ABILITY TO MAKE DECISIONS FOR PARENTS

It came on like a silent earthquake. You didn’t see it coming. You never felt it when it hit. But now the foundation of the place where you live has shifted. The cracks in the walls are becoming visible. And nothing will ever be the same.

That is the effect of the 2018 Arizona appellate court case of NICAISE v. SUNDARAM,

Before Nicaise, the Family Court was the final arbiter of disputes over matters like education, medical, religious, or other decisions that parents make. If the parties couldn’t agree on an important parenting issue, one of them could take the matter to court and, after a trial or a hearing, the judge would make the decision for them.

But not anymore.

The Court in Nicaise ruled that a judge “may not substitute its judgment for that of a parent and make parenting decisions for them when they are unable to agree.” So now, when parents disagree, a judge can no longer decide which school a child will attend, or what doctor can treat her, or whether she will participate in therapy, etc. Those are parental decisions, and the Court no longer has the authority to intervene and “break the tie.”

For a number of years, the trend in divorce, legal separation, paternity, and other Family Law cases has been for the courts to award the parents joint legal decision-making authority (formerly called “joint custody”). But the Nicaise case is likely to slow down that trend, or even stop it in its tracks, in cases where people have trouble co-parenting.

Previously, the courts would sometimes enter a joint legal decision-making order, but give one of the parents the “Final-Say” in the event of a disagreement. It required the parents to at least discuss the issue, and each parent had input. But that has changed, too. The Court, in Nicaise, determined that “an award of joint legal decision-making that gives final authority to one parent is, in reality, an award of sole legal decision-making.” So now, if parents cannot seem to agree, then instead of awarding them joint custody with one parent having “final say,” it is likely that the judge will simply award one parent sole legal decision-making authority. This might make the other parent feel as though his or her parental rights have been stripped away. And it could set the stage for less co-parenting, and more fighting, in the future.

The effect of the Nicaise ruling is that if a mother and father are unable to make decisions together, the Court will have to appoint one parent to make all the decisions; or it might split up the decision-making authority so that, for instance, one parent is in charge of making educational decisions while the other has the authority to make medical decisions.

The Nicaise case represents yet another major shift in how Family Law cases are decided in Arizona. It may take years for the repercussions of that ruling to become clear. But this we do know: There is no longer a reason for a judge to order that the parents have joint legal decision-making authority with one parent having the final say. And when parents appear to be unable to make decisions together, it is likely that a judge will grant one parent or the other sole legal decision-making authority. This could derail the decades-old trend of Arizona courts giving divorced/separated parents joint decision-making responsibility, and expecting them to be able to co-parent.

How will the Nicaise ruling play out in the future? – It may result in pitched court battles between parents, with each of them seeking “sole custody,” and it could turn divorce and custody litigation into a high-conflict, winner-take-all contest. This makes it even more important for moms and dads to try to work together and co-parent effectively. And, where they are unable to do so, it will be worthwhile to consider peaceful options, such as mediation and settlement negotiation. Because if those efforts fail, and litigation becomes the only alternative, it is likely that one parent is going to win, and one parent is going to lose. And sometimes that is not the best outcome for the children.

 

 

At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Juncaj are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator. He has also acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, and served on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force.  Hanna Juncaj is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. In addition, Hanna is an active member of her County Bar Association.  We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, call us today at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.