Wednesday, August 07, 2013

custody - relocation

S.J.S. v. M.J.S. – Superior Court – August 7, 2013 (25 pp.)

Mother's relocation request Erie to Bucks County denied.

The Court rejected mother's argument that, because there was no existing court order, the trial court should have made a custody determination and then engaged in the relocation analysis, rather than, as here, combining the considerations and rendering an order that awarded primary custody contingent on Mother’s ultimate decision on where she would reside.

The Court disagreed with Mother’s claim that the trial court elevated relocation over custody. It specifically stated that it placed no greater emphasis on the relocation factors simply because they were analyzed first. “The Court considers the § 5337(h) factors together with the broader best interests of the children in mind in assessing which party shall be ordered primary physical custodial and whether Mother’s request for relocation will be permitted.”  Under these circumstances, it is unrealistic to compartmentalize the issues. 

The trial court engaged in the proper analysis using both relocation and custody factors, with the best interest standard as the guide. The court may have concentrated on relocation factors, but this was because it recognized that the custody arrangement was in dispute only in the event Mother chose to relocate. The parties recognized this as well.

Burden of proof - Finally, as the party proposing relocation, Mother bears the burden of proving relocation will serve the children’s best interests. See 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5337(i). Each party, however, has the burden of establishing “the integrity of that party’s motives in either seeking the relocation or seeking to prevent the relocation.” 23 Pa.C.S.A. 5337(i)(2). The court did not err in placing the burden on Mother to show that relocation was in the children’s best interests.

Benefits to children - The benefits to the children of Mother's proposed move are not exclusive to that area and do not outweigh the detrimental effect on Father’s time and relationship with the children. Further, Mother did not meet her burden of establishing the integrity of her reasons for leaving the current home area. As far as Father’s motives for opposing relocation, the parties do not dispute that he sought only to preserve his relationship with the children. He also sought to preserve the children’s relationship with his and Mother’s extended families. The record bears this out

Mother as primary caretaker – Mother viewed her primary caregiver role in a vacuum. As Mother acknowledged, she has had received considerable help from Father and from her stepmother, and readily conceded at trial that Father was a fit and caring parent, and capable of being primary custodian. Mother admitted that the children had a strong bond with Father and their families in Erie. Further, it is clear that Father has been a consistent and stable parental figure in the girls’ lives.  Substantial testimony showed it was possible for them to remain in the Erie area and spare the children emotional turmoil, and, if this were the case, Mother would remain primary custodian..