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.

 

 

 

ARIZONA CUSTODY LAW UPDATE – IS ASSUMPTION OF EQUAL PARENTING TIME AND DECISION-MAKING AUTHORITY UNFAIR TO CHILDREN?

  In 2012 I wrote an article on our law firm’s blog entitled “Say Goodbye to Custody,”, in which I discussed the brand new, and highly debated, revisions to the Arizona Family Law statutes. These laws, which guide the Court in making custody decisions involving children, have given rise to an assumption of equal parenting time and decision-making authority that has become the starting point for the Court’s analysis in every contested custody case. In my opinion, this approach hurts children more than helps them, and is unfair to both mothers and fathers. In this article, I’ll explain why.

Among the changes to the law were the following:

  • The word “custody” was replaced with the terms “Legal Decision-Making” and “Parenting Time.” (A.R.S. §25-403)
  • A provision was added providing that the court shall adopt a parenting plan “that provides for both parents to share legal decision-making regarding their child and that maximizes their respective parenting time.” (A.R.S. §25-403.02)
  • And in determining custody, whereas the Court was previously required to consider which parent had historically been the primary caregiver for the children, that was removed from the list of factors in the statute and replaced with a requirement for judges to consider: “The past, present, and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.” (A.R.S. §25-403 [1], Emphasis added.)

At the time, there was much discussion as to what these changes would mean. Some experts believed that the revisions were mostly “semantics” and that not much would change. Others argued that the revisions would lead to a “sea-change” in how the courts determine custody (now called Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time) in the future.

Now, more than five years later, the answer is in. Has there been a big change? Yes. The change has been enormous. It is a seismic shift in the way judges determine parenting time and legal decision-making authority. And, in my opinion, the change is not necessarily a healthy one.

The law still provides that the “best interests of the child” standard should be applied when making “custody” and parenting time decisions, but today, many judges interpret the statutory changes as requiring them to start with the assumption that both parents should be given equal decision-making authority, and equal parenting time. And, in many cases, that trumps the best interests of the child. It wasn’t that way before the law was changed. But, increasingly, it is the reality today.

Why do I think this is not a healthy approach? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute; but before I do, I need to explain a few things: The latest studies show that children do better, and are happier, when both of their parents are loving, active and involved. When a divorce or breakup occurs, the courts should work to make sure that loving, active and involved parents share in decision-making, and that the children get to spend plenty of time with both of them. In fact, Arizona law provides that:

It … is the declared public policy of this state and the general purpose of this title that absent evidence to the contrary, it is in a child’s best interest: (1) To have substantial, frequent, meaningful and continuing parenting time with both parents; (and) (2) To have both parents participate in decision-making about the child.” (A.R.S. §25-103) 

So that’s the policy. And it’s true that equal decision-making and equal parenting time are good for children when both parents are loving and capable caregivers. But here’s the catch: Not all parents are equal. Some parents have never been meaningfully involved in their children’s lives, and never will be. And I’m not necessarily talking about “bad” parents. There are parents who love their children but are just too busy, or maybe not interested enough, to be involved. If a parent isn’t available to spend time with the children; and rarely or never attends doctors’ appointments, or school functions, or extracurricular activities; and if that parent doesn’t know the children’s friends; and isn’t tapped into their children’s likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses; their abilities, or disabilities; their medical conditions; etc., then how can that parent be trusted with making critically important decisions for those children? – But all too often today, these types of parents are awarded 50/50 parenting time and equal decision-making authority. And why? – Because of an unwritten assumption that a parent is entitled to it under Arizona law.

This is where I think the new law, as currently interpreted, goes off the rails and can hurt children. It places “Parents’ Rights” ahead of “Children’s Rights.” It assumes that in every case the Court should start its analysis with the proposition that both parents will receive equal parenting time and decision-making authority. And, by doing this, the best interest of the child has been made secondary to the best interest of the adults. Proponents of the law will not agree with my opinion. They will point out that there is no legal presumption mandating equal decision-making and parenting time — but that argument rings hollow. Because while it is true that overcoming a legal presumption requires a higher level of proof than a mere assumption, there is often little difference between the two in actual practice.  Try explaining the difference to a mother or father who has always been the sole caregiver, but whose children will now spend half their lives with a parent who never changed a diaper, never got up with a baby at night, never took care of a sick toddler, or attended a parent-teacher conference, or a school play, or a Little League game.

Those favoring an assumption of equal parenting-time and decision-making will argue that the Court is still required to consider all relevant factors, and that while “equal” may be the starting point in the analysis, a judge can give a parent less time, or no decision-making authority at all, where it is deemed to be in the best interest of the child. And that is true. But I would remind them that Arizona law was also changed in a way that makes such an outcome less likely.

Arizona Revised Statutes, Section 403 contains a list of factors that the Court shall consider in determining Legal Decision-Making and Parenting-Time. Before the law was changed, that statute contained a factor which required a judge to consider whether a parent had historically provided primary care for the child. But that factor was removed from the statute and replaced with this: “The court shall consider all factors that are relevant to the child’s physical and emotional well-being, including . . . (1) The past, present and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.”

So now, in making the all-important decision on where the child lives and who will make major decisions, the judge is required to consider a parent’s unproven “potential.” Instead of giving primary consideration to which parent actually took care of the child throughout his or her life, the Court must give equal weight to the other parent’s “potential.”

But here’s the problem — How many people do you know who never lived up to their potential? How many athletes were top draft picks but never became stars? How many employees were promoted but never became effective managers or supervisors? — How many moms or dads were excited when their baby was born but never became active and involved parents? In my opinion, it is a huge mistake to emphasize “potential” over actual experience, or even to give it equal weight. Because past history is the best predictor of future behavior. Thus, by putting too much stock in “potential,” the danger of a bad outcome is evident. And in the end, when a father or mother is awarded equal parenting-time and decision-making authority and never lives up to his or her potential, it is the children who suffer.

Of course, there will be parents who were stay-at-home moms or dads during the marriage, but will have to work full time after the divorce – and the fact that both parents will now be working should be taken into consideration by the Court in formulating a parenting plan. In that sense, the other parent’s potential to become a competent caregiver would come into play. However, it should be just one of many factors the judge considers in determining what is in the best interest of the child.

Fathers’ rights advocates maintain that an assumption of equal parenting time and decision-making is necessary because mothers were previously favored in custody disputes. Hey, I’m a father, and nothing is more important to me than my children. And, yes, it is true that there was a time when mothers typically received custody of children. But that was during an era when women were faced with societal and social barriers that made it difficult for them to obtain a college education or executive-level employment, or even a decent-paying job, and which practically forced them to be “housewives” and stay-at-home caregivers of children. Today, many of those barriers have been knocked-down, and glass-ceilings are being shattered. Recent studies show that over sixty-percent of all college students today are women. This means that in the future more mothers will be the family breadwinners; and more fathers will become stay-at-home parents. Therefore, for a judge to make a blanket assumption of equal parenting time and decision-making authority is unfair to both Mothers and Fathers.

In Arizona and other states across the country, the growing trend in custody cases is to award the parents equal decision-making authority and parenting time. That’s not a bad thing, so long as the parents are equally involved in raising their children. The experts agree that it is best for children to have both parents actively involved in their lives, and that effective co-parenting helps to ensure that children will grow up to be healthy and productive adults. But to make custody decisions based on a simple assumption that both parents are equally capable – when they may not be – is a colossal mistake. One that can harm the children in the long-run.

The care of children is too important to make broad assumptions, let alone instituting legal presumptions, regarding decision-making and parenting time. In the real world, parents are not always equal caregivers. Sometimes the mother is the more responsible parent; sometimes it is the father who is the nurturer and is in a better position to provide for the children’s needs; and in many cases both parents are loving, capable caregivers who are willing to co-parent their children (that is, obviously, the best scenario).

Rather than making assumptions, the Court should start with a blank slate when crafting a parenting plan. The judge should carefully examine the capabilities of each parent, the factors contained in Arizona’s custody statute (A.R.S. §25-403), and all other relevant factors. The judge should take a close look at who has been the child’s primary caregiver, and also consider the potential future relationship between the parents and the child. But the needs of the child should always come first. By taking this approach the Court can ensure that the best interest of the child is protected.

 

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, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving 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 maintenance and child support, modification and enforcement actions, grandparent and non-parent rights, and all other matters pertaining to families and children. To learn more about our firm, check us out on Facebook, Linkedin-Gary Frank, and Linkedin-Hanna Juncaj. If you are in need of a consultation, please do not hesitate to call our office 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.

 

PARENTAL ALIENATION – IS IT REAL? DOES IT REALLY MATTER?

There has long been a debate among experts over whether Parental Alienation is really a “syndrome.” To which I respond: Does it matter? In our Family Law practice, we see Parental Alienation all the time. It occurs frequently in divorce and custody (now called Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time) cases. Whenever a parent talks badly about the other parent to the children, or in front of the children, that’s an act of parental alienation. Why? Because children look up to their parents. They respect them They believe them. And if a parent is trashing the other parent within hearing distance of the children – or, worse yet, to the children – then there is a pretty good chance that it will affect how the children view the parent who is being “trashed.” Some parents do this incessantly. Others do it sporadically. Some do it intentionally. Others do it without thinking of the consequences. But either way, it can impact how the children view their other parent, and can alienate the children from that parent. More importantly, it can negatively affect the children, and even cause long-lasting emotional harm. So, does it matter whether Parental Alienation is a psychological condition? A “syndrome”? That’s missing the point. It’s a bad thing. It breaks down the relationship between a child and a parent whom he or she loves (or should be allowed to love). And, in the long run, it hurts the child.

 

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, which includes having acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court; and serving 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, please do not hesitate to call our office 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.

The information contained in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be, nor should it be construed, as legal advice in your particular case. You should consult with an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. Further, reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship. We invite you to contact us if you are in need of legal advice or guidance. To schedule a personal consultation, you can call us at 602-383-3610 or reach us through our website at garyfranklaw.com. We’d be happy to talk to you.

SAY GOODBYE TO CUSTODY

Custody is now a relic of the past.  The Arizona legislature has spoken, and the term “Custody” has been banished from our statutes.  Beginning on January 1, 2013 parents coming before our courts will not be awarded sole custody, or joint custody . . . or any kind of custody.  Custody is dead and buried.  It has been replaced by the terms: “Legal Decision-Making” and “Parenting Time.”  From now on, the Arizona courts will either enter an order awarding joint legal decision-making to both parents; or they will give one parent the right to make decisions regarding the children.  The court could also split the decision-making rights and responsibilities between the parents (for example, the mother might be given the right to make medical decisions while the father has the right to make educational decisions).
Some experts view this new arrangement as an earth-shaking philosophical shift that will lead to a significant change in the way the courts decide family law cases.  Other experts take the position that the wording of the statutes is merely a matter of semantics, and that things will not change much at all.  Only time will tell.  Over the next year, as the law unfolds, I will keep you apprised of how the courts are interpreting the newly revised statutes.
For several years now, there has been a trend in this and many other states to award joint custody (rather than sole custody) in the typical family law case; and, today, court orders for equal parenting time and decision-making have become commonplace.  This represents a real departure from the past, when the vast majority of cases ended up with the children living primarily with one parent.  The recent changes to Arizona family law seem to reflect an extension of this trend.  While the statute does not contain a specific “presumption” of equal time and decision-making, at least one judge who has worked on the new law believes that joint decision-making and equal parenting time will now be the “starting point” for judges in determining family law disputes.
This new philosophy is revealed in the language added to A.R.S. §25-403.02.  Section B of the statute states: “Consistent with the child’s best interests in section 25-403 and sections 25-403.03, 25-403.04, and 25-403.05, the court shall adopt a parenting plan that provides for both parents to share legal decision-making regarding their child and that maximizes their respective parenting time.  The court shall not prefer a parent’s proposed plan because of the parent’s or child’s gender.” (Emphasis added.)
A.R.S. §25-403 contains the factors that the Court will use in deciding what type of parenting arrangement is in the best interests of a child.  In the past, the court considered, as a factor, “whether one parent, both parents or neither parent has provided primary care of the child.”  However, that factor has been removed from the new statute.  Instead, the court will now consider “the past, present and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.”  Some experts are disturbed by this change.  They argue that a parent’s track-record of providing primary care is important evidence that should be considered by the court in determining the type of parenting arrangement that would be in a child’s best interests.  Other experts disagree and point out that after the divorce, both the father and the mother will probably have to work full-time, and each of them will be required to “step-up” and become single parents. Therefore, in making its decision, the court should consider not only the past and present, but also the anticipated future relationship between the parents and the children.  They argue that because a parent was not the primary caregiver in the past does not mean that he/she is incapable of nurturing and providing excellent care of the children in the future.  This issue will certainly be a hotly contested one in family law litigation during the coming year.
Another new factor for the court to consider in applying A.R.S. §25-403 is contained in Section 7.  This section states that, in deciding which type of parenting arrangement is in the children’s best interests, the judge shall consider “whether one parent intentionally misled the court to cause an unnecessary delay, to increase the cost of litigation or to persuade the court to give a legal decision-making or a parenting time preference to that parent.”   The apparent purpose of the new provision is to place both parents on notice that if either one of them makes a false or improper allegation, or attempts to expand or delay the litigation, or acts in an unreasonable manner, it could be a basis for the court to take legal decision-making and/or parenting time away from that parent.  (To put it in terms of the old statute, if the judge believes you have acted unreasonably during the litigation, it could result in you losing custody of your children.)
Domestic violence continues to be an important factor that the court will consider in making its determination of legal decision-making and parenting time.  But based on the language of the new statute, the presence of domestic violence now takes on even greater importance.  The legislature has added a new factor to A.R.S. §25-403 which requires that the court shall consider “whether there has been domestic violence or child abuse pursuant to section 25-402.03.”  That section mandates that “joint legal decision-making shall not be awarded if the court makes a finding of the existence of significant domestic violence pursuant to section 13-3601 or if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that there has been a significant history of domestic violence.”  The statute also states that “the court shall consider evidence of domestic violence as being contrary to the best interests of the child.”  Under the law, abuse of a spouse is considered to be akin to child abuse, leading to “a rebuttable presumption that that an award of sole or joint legal decision-making to the parent who committed the act of domestic violence is contrary to the child’s best interests.”

Under A.R.S. §25-403 if the court determines that a parent has abused drugs or alcohol or has been convicted of a substance abuse offense within twelve months before a petition or request for legal decision-making or parenting time is filed, there is a rebuttable presumption that sole or joint legal decision-making by that parent is not in the child’s best interests.  What constitutes “abuse” of drugs or alcohol is not defined in the statute.  The issue will surely be the subject of much litigation in 2013 and beyond.

The Arizona legislature made a number of other important changes, as well, especially in the area of Third Party Rights (such as grandparent and non-parent visitation and legal decision-making); and in the area of Sanctions for Litigation Misconduct.

Arizona’s new approach to what was formerly known as “custody” is groundbreaking.  It is at the forefront of a growing national trend which views divorced parents as partners in raising children.  But is this view realistic?  Will it protect the best interests of children in divorce cases, or will it hurt them?  The answers to these questions will be determined as the new law unfolds.

 

Gary J. Frank is a litigation attorney and mediator with over thirty years of Family Law experience in dealing in divorce, custody, and parenting issues. Mr. Frank has served on the Governor’s Task Force for Prevention of Child Abuse, and has received a Volunteer Lawyer award from the Maricopa County Bar Association for his work with children. For many years he acted as a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, which gave him an insight into the inner workings of the courts that many attorneys lack. He can be reached by telephone (602-383-3610); or by email at [email protected]; or through his website at www.garyfranklaw.com. If you are in need of a consultation regarding any area of Family Law, please do not hesitate to contact us today.