NEW AZ SUPREME COURT CASE RESTORES FAIRNESS TO FAMILY LAW

Thanks to the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Nicaise v. Sundaram the planets are now all aligned and balance has been restored in the world. Ok, maybe this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much as far as Arizona Family Law is concerned. Let me explain:

For many years, there has been a trend in the courts (Arizona and many other states) toward awarding divorced and separated parents “joint custody” of their children, and placing responsibility on them to work together in making major decisions affecting the children. Of course, making decisions together isn’t easy, so when problems would arise (on issues like choice of schools, or whether counseling is necessary, etc.) judges were available to hear the dispute and “break the tie” by making a binding decision. In some cases, where parents found it difficult to make decisions, the Court could enter an order awarding the parties joint custody, but giving one of the parents “final say” in the event of a dispute – but even though a parent had “veto power,” she/he was required to consult the other parent and seek their input prior to making the decision. In rare cases, the Court would award one party sole custody, but that tended to be reserved for cases where one of the parents was uninvolved; had a substance abuse problem; committed acts of domestic violence; had a criminal history; or demonstrated poor judgment that rendered them unfit to make decisions that were in the best interests of the children.

But all that changed in 2018 with the Arizona Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Nicaise v. Sundaram. I wrote about it in an August, 2018 blog post. The ruling turned Family Law in Arizona upside down. In that case, the Court of Appeals stated that the Court “may not substitute its judgment for that of a parent and make parenting decisions for them when they are unable to agree.” In other words, the courts no longer had the right to “break the tie” when parents could not agree on important matters such as medical, educational, or religious decisions affecting a child. The Appellate Court in Nicaise also concluded that giving a parent joint custody with “final say,” is the same as giving that parent sole legal decision-making authority.

The effect of the Court of Appeals ruling in Nicaise was profound. It pretty much assured that in every divorce or custody case where the parents were potentially at odds (which is the vast majority of them) the Court would be likely to award sole legal decision-making authority to one of them; or to split up the decision-making authority by giving one parent sole authority to make educational decisions while the other parent would have sole authority to make decisions on other matters, such as medical issues or religion.

In essence, this set up a win-lose battle where one parent would be given unfettered sole-discretion to make important decisions without seeking the other’s input, and leaving the other parent out in the cold. And it would probably result in more high-conflict cases; more contested trials; more fights to modify existing orders; and far more divorce and custody wars being waged in court.

But, thankfully, the Arizona Supreme Court changed all that in January, 2019 with its decision to overturn the Appellate Court ruling in Nicaise v. Sundaram.

The Supreme Court ruling makes much more sense. It noted that when the legislature enacted the law with regard to Joint and Sole Legal Decision-Making, it created a distinction between the two, and carved out an important exception: Whereas Arizona Revised Statutes, Section §25-401(6) gives a person with sole legal decision-making authority the right to make decisions affecting the child, Section §25-401(2) defines joint legal decision-making as both parents sharing decision-making and neither parent’s rights are superior “except with respect to specified decisions as set forth by the court or the parents in the final judgement or order.”  This exception allowed a judge to split the decision-making authority, and/or to award parents joint legal decision-making authority, while giving one parent the “final say” in the event of a disagreement.

The Supreme Court pointed out that someone with joint legal decision-making authority and “final say” is still required to communicate with the other party and seek their input in an attempt to resolve the matter before making the final decision. (This is not the case with sole legal decision-making authority.) Therefore, it held that joint legal decision-making authority with “final say” — and sole legal decision-making authority — are different as a practical matter. It also held that Section §401(2) “also preserves some legal authority for the parent who does not have final legal decision-making authority.” The Court ended its analysis by stating that “Arizona cases frequently provide for joint legal decision-making with one parent having final authority over certain matters . . . The court of appeals’ opinion unnecessarily injects uncertainty into a well-established practice and is inconsistent with the overall structure of §25-401.”

The Court of Appeals 2018 ruling in the Nicaise case threw us back into the dark ages where only one parent could be given “custody” and there would always be a winner and loser in every litigation. The Supreme Court’s 2019 decision to overturn the Court of Appeals case restores balance and fairness to Arizona Family Law. It allows for compromise. And it gives parents respect and a greater right to participate in their children’s upbringing.

 

At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., both Gary Frank and attorney Hanna Amar 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 Amar is a highly-skilled attorney and mediator with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues – a great communicator who cares about her clients and uses her expertise to guide them through difficult times. We handle Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), grandparent and non-parent rights, division of property, spousal maintenance, child support, modification and enforcement actions, 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 [email protected] and [email protected] You can also contact us through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com.   We look forward to hearing from you.

 

 

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