Child-rearing decisions are often challenging when couples divorce or otherwise end their romantic relationship. In some cases, there is so much animosity between parents that they are unable to effectively communicate with respect to the needs of the child. In J.R. v. M.S., the New York Supreme Court was asked to decide on the custody arrangement where they had a history of having trouble working together to make certain child-rearing decisions.
The parties were married in 1999. There were tensions throughout their marriage and the tensions intensified after the birth of their only child in 2007. In 2013, the father revealed he had an affair and the couple separated. In January 2014, the father filed for divorce. In September 2014, the parties entered into an agreement setting forth an interim parental access schedule. For the next two years, the parties attempted to agree on a parenting plan. There were countless settlement conferences and numerous draft agreements. Ultimately, the parties were unable to reach a compromise.
The issue before the New York Supreme court is whether meaningful involvement of both parents in a child’s life can be achieved by designating certain zones wherein each parent, after full consultation with the other, will have final decision-making authority.
Historically, in New York, the standard for joint custody was that it was reserved for parents who had a were able to behave in a “mature civilized fashion” in the best interests for their children. Embattled parents rarely were awarded joint custody. See Braiman v. Braiman, 44 NY2d 584 (1978). Over the decades, things have changed, not only in New York, but in other jurisdictions. The presumption now in New York and elsewhere is that joint custody is in the best interests of the child, even in cases where the parents are unable to communicate directly with each other. Batista v. Falcon, 148 AD3d 698 (2nd Dept. 2017). Thus, if at all possible, court should designate both parents joint custodial parents, rather than making one the custodial and the other the non-custodial parent.
In this case, this court finds that based on the totality of the circumstances, the evidence supports a finding of a joint shared custodial arrangement with equal parenting time to each parent to be the most appropriate resolution in support of the child’s best interests.
As far as decision-making, the court found that it was in the child’s best interest for both parents to be involved. Here, the court that the best way to achieve this is through setting certain zones where each party, after full consultation with the other, would have final decision-making authority and some zones where a hybrid format will apply.
Interestingly, while considering recommendation of the forensic psychiatrist that the mother have across-the-board final decision-making authority, the court disagreed. The found that giving the mother full decision-making father posed a risk of the father being marginalized and the risk of removing any incentive for the parties to be more inclusive in the decision-making process.
The court designated the father as the primary decision-maker with respect to education because of his involvement with the school’s parent association. The exception to this was if the child had to change schools. Both parties would weigh in on the decision and a parent coordinator will break any tie. The court designated the mother as the primary decision-maker with respect to health care, with the exception that if the child has to change pediatricians, both parties weigh in on the decision and a parent coordinator will break any tie.
With regards to summer camp and sports activities, which has been a source of continual conflict, the court designated the mother as the primary decision-maker. With respect to religion, because the mother is a nonpracticing Christian, and the father is a lightly-practicing Jew, the court designed the father as the primary decision-maker when it comes to religion.
The court stressed that even if one parent has final decision-making in a particular zone, all decisions are to made with consultation with the other parent. The court expected that the Parent Coordinator to be involved in helping to make the arrangement successful.