Child Custody, Visitation & Relocation

Awarding Primary Child Custody Of Minor Child To Mother Reversed

In the family law, child custody case of W.C.F. v. M.G., PICS Case No. 15-0749 (Pa. Super. April 29, 2015) the Honorable Anne E. Lazarus, writing on behalf of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, ruled that the trial court erred in awarding primary physical custody to mother because trial court’s own findings favored father as primary custodian and parental alienation was a critical issue.

Mother and father married in 2010, had a child in 2012 and mother’s parents moved into the family house in 2012. Maternal grandmother had been primary caretaker of the child. Father believed that maternal grandmother was blocking his attempts to bond with the child and the parties agreed that the grandparents would move out. However, mother and child left home with maternal grandparents. Father immediately filed a complaint for shared legal and physical custody of the child. Mother filed for divorce and sought legal and primary custody.

The court granted an interim order sustaining the “status quo,” giving mother primary physical custody and giving father partial physical custody three evenings and one half day a week. Father filed an amended complaint seeking sole legal and primary physical custody of the child with supervised visitation or partial custody to mother. Following hearings, the court granted primary physical custody to mother and gave father partial physical custody on a repeating two week basis, expanding father’s time with child. Father appealed.

It was not clear that the award was in the child’s best interests. The trial court found that the findings of fact favored the father but found that a change in primary custody would be disruptive for the child. However, the fact that mother had primary physical custody was due solely to the fact that mother moved out and took child with her and trial court’s interim order simply maintained the status quo created by mother. The fact that father had not been a primary custodian was a function of mother’s unilateral unreasonable decisions and was not a basis for denying him primary custody where all factors pointed otherwise.

Additionally, the trial court’s findings did not point to the conclusion that both mother and father were equally fit to act as primary custodian. The trial court expressed concerns about mother’s insincere or delusional allegations of abuse by father as well as her “rigid” parenting style which obscured a “wholesome, rational approach” to child rearing.

The court concluded that geographically and financially the parties were in a position to at least share custody equally, if not give father primary physical custody and a graduated schedule making progress toward that end would be in child’s best interests. Furthermore, due to the lack of family cooperation cited by the trial court, awarding primary physical custody to father might significantly benefit child and make mother realize that her lack of cooperation and attempts at alienation would not be rewarded by the court.

The trial court’s findings were supported by the record, but its conclusions were unreasonable in light of those findings. The majority of the statutory best interest factors favored father, parental alienation was a critical issue, father was more likely to promote child’s relationship with mother than mother would with father, mother’s repeated attempts to allege abuse were not credible and mother’s refusal to cooperate with father all outweighed retaining primary custody with mother. The trial court’s order was unreasonable and it was vacated and remanded for an order consistent with the trial judge’s findings.

Reference: Digest of Recent Opinions, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 38 PLW 4169 (May 19, 2015)

Filed Under: Family Law: Child Custody; Child Best Interest

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