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Newton v. McFarlane, 174 A.D.3d 67 (N.Y. App. Div. 2019)

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The case of Newton v. McFarlane, decided by the New York Appellate Division in 2019, delves into critical issues surrounding child custody determinations.

Background
In 2013, the Family Court awarded sole legal and physical custody of the parties’ child, a 17-year-old girl, to the father. This decision was affirmed by the court. In 2016, the mother initiated her third attempt at custody modification, seeking sole legal and physical custody. Despite objections from the child’s attorney, the Family Court conducted a full custody hearing without assessing if the mother had alleged a sufficient change in circumstances. Following the hearing, the Family Court concluded that the mother demonstrated changed circumstances justifying sole custody, stating it was in the child’s best interests. However, the court failed to provide a detailed explanation for its decision in the order, promising a full decision that was never issued.

The child, represented by her court-appointed attorney, appeals the Family Court’s decisions, arguing that the determinations of a change in circumstances and awarding custody to the mother lacked a solid and substantial basis in the record. Although the father hasn’t filed an appeal, he supports the child’s attorney’s position in his brief. The mother opposes the appeal.

Issue
While there are a number of issues on appeal, one of the most significant ones is whether the teenage child’s stated preference should have been given more weight.

Holding
The Appellate Division criticized the lack of due consideration given to the child’s expressed preferences and ultimately awarded custody to the father.

The court criticized the Family Court’s handling of the case, especially its failure to analyze whether a change in circumstances existed between the second and third modification petitions.┬áThe court reasoned that even if the mother had successfully demonstrated a change in circumstances, her request for modification of the custody order was not in the child’s best interests. The child had a well-established presence in her Brooklyn community, attending school there since second grade, surrounded by friends and family, and maintaining a stable home life with her father and paternal grandmother. The court emphasized the positive value of maintaining the status quo and acknowledged that the father actively engaged in the child’s education, participating in individualized education program meetings, securing a math tutor, and planning her transition to high school. The court contrasted this with the mother’s failure to demonstrate a commitment to the child’s schooling. It noted that the father provided a stable home environment, enrolled the child in a school where she excelled, and was proactive in addressing the child’s academic performance and behavior, particularly in completing homework. The court concluded that the father’s custodial arrangement was in the child’s best interests, citing his demonstrated ability to provide stability, support the child’s education, and maintain a positive home environment.

Conclusion
In determining a custody modification, the court considers various factors to ensure the best interests of the child. A key consideration is whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the last custody order. The court typically evaluates the present custodial arrangement, the quality of the home environment, parental guidance, emotional and intellectual development opportunities, financial status, and the relative fitness of each parent. Additionally, the court assesses the length of time the current custody arrangement has been in effect.

One crucial element in this assessment is the child’s expressed preferences. While not determinative, the child’s age and maturity are considered, as well as the potential for any external influences on the child’s decision. Courts recognize that a child’s viewpoint can provide valuable insights into their well-being and what custodial arrangement may be in their best interests.

In the case of Newton v. McFarlane, the court emphasized the importance of the child’s established community ties, stability, and engagement in school. The court also noted the child’s clear expression of a desire to remain in the custody of one parent. Ultimately, the court aims to create an environment that promotes the child’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development, and the child’s preferences serve as one factor in this comprehensive assessment.

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