Without a doubt, the financial issues arising from the Coronavirus Pandemic and the resulting shutdown of businesses and “stay-at-home” order issued in Pennsylvania by Governor Wolf have had a major impact for many, including those with Support obligations, as well as those who rely on those payments.
In the course of the past few days, we have all been presented with unforeseen challenges as a result of the COVID-19 virus. If you currently have a custody order in place or are going through a custody battle, you might be experiencing parenting issues stemming from the coronavirus outbreak, the recent school closures and work from home mandates.
In Pennsylvania, the paramount concern in a child custody proceeding is the best interest of the child. In determining the best interest of the child, courts engage in a comprehensive analysis of the factors outlined in 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5328. Pennsylvania Health and Safety Statute §10231.2013 states that the use of medical marijuana in accordance with state laws is not a consideration by itself in a custody case. The custody laws have not been amended to address the issue or make similar limitations regarding the use of medical marijuana by a parent.
On December 18, 2019, however, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion affirming an April 5, 2019 Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas decision limiting self-represented Father’s contact with son, age 10, to periods of supervised physical custody. The case involves a child born in May of 2009 to Mother and Father, both who have struggled with substance abuse. The court noted that Father’s recreational use of marijuana has been a recurring issue throughout the custody litigation. Father obtained a medical marijuana license when the parties were living in Georgia. At the time of the hearing, the child’s maternal grandparents had primary physical custody of the child. The trial court had awarded maternal grandparents primary physical custody of the child adding a provision that conditionally extinguished Father’s supervised custodial time “upon Father’s willingness to demonstrate sobriety and continued abstinence.”
Father argued that in light of his license to use medical marijuana as a mechanism to manage his wrist pain, the trial court should not weigh the fact of his medical use against him. The trial court rejected Father’s argument and reinstated the prior custody arrangement and the hair-follicle-testing condition. The trial court reasoned that it is unknown to the Court what effect, if any, Father’s alleged medical condition and use of marijuana, whether prescribed or used recreationally, may have on his ability to care for a child. Father appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.
The Superior Court noted that the Medical Marijuana Act prohibits the fact-finder from penalizing a parent simply for using medical marijuana. However, in the instant case, the trial court concluded after a consideration of all of the best-interest factors and the evidence presented, that it was not in the child’s best interests to expand Father’s supervised partial custody to unsupervised overnight custody without requiring Father to continue to submit to the previously-ordered drug screening regimen. The Medical Marijuana Act does not preclude the court from making relevant findings concerning effective marijuana use, medical or recreational, on parent’s ability to care for a child. The Superior Court noted that the fact finder should consider not only the parent’s history of drug and alcohol use, but also the parent’s mental health and physical condition that might require the parent to rely on prescribed medication to subdue that pain. The Court concluded that a parent’s history of drug and alcohol abuse, including a parent’s legal use of any substance, should be considered in determining the child’s best interest.
The divorce is final. No more deadlines to meet, papers to file or waiting time for all of it to be over. Now that the hard part is behind you, it is time for a fresh start. However, there might be a few things remaining for you to do before you can officially move on to the next chapter.
The following is a checklist of things that you might still need to do after your divorce is finalized:
Getting these things done might seem a burden now, after all you have been through, but it is necessary to avoid trouble later on. It is better that you go through this checklist and handle these issues as soon as your divorce is finalized to prevent possible future complications.
Once these things are done, you get to close that chapter and enjoy your new life with no worries about unhandled matters left over from the divorce.
As family law attorneys and parties to custody orders can attest, shared custody and co-parenting arrangements are often fraught with ongoing tensions, stress and conflict. Using the court system to litigate smaller disagreements in the aftermath of a custody order is inefficient, costly and time-consuming. In addition to the burden it places on the Court system, it is a strain on not only the parents, but most importantly, the children who are subject to the order. Fortunately, a common sense alternative is soon returning which can mitigate some of the strife of custody disputes in the future.
On March 1, 2019, the Parenting Coordination program, which was terminated in May 2013, is being reinstated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The rule allows the Court to appoint a parenting coordinator to resolve parenting issues arising from the final custody order issued in the case. The rule clearly establishes that parenting coordination is not intended for every case. Coordinators will not be appointed where there is a protection from abuse order in effect between the parties to the custody action, a finding by the Court that a party has been a victim of domestic violence by a party to the custody action during the case or within 36 months of the filing of the custody action or where a party has been the victim of a personal injury crime.
A parenting coordinator will be appointed for a period not to exceed 12 months; however, this may be extended. The rule also sets certain qualifications that must be met prior to the coordinator’s appointment. Once appointed, the parenting coordinator will have the authority to recommend resolutions to the court on specific custody related issues including, but not limited to: deciding on locations and conditions for custody exchanges; temporary variations of the custody schedule due to special or unique events and circumstances; and any school-related issues.
There are, however, specific areas into which the coordinator is explicitly prohibited from making any decisions such as: changing legal or primary physical custody; changing the custody schedule (a permanent change, rather than a “temporary” one); changing the child’s residence or their relocation; financial issues; major decisions affecting the health, education or religion of the child; and any issues limited by the appointing judge.
Under the new rule, after giving the parties or their counsel the appropriate notice and the opportunity to be heard on the issue(s), the coordinator submits to the court, and serves copies on the parties or their counsel, a written summary and recommendation within two days after hearing from the parties on the issues. An objecting party has five days from the service of the summary and recommendation to file a petition appealing the coordinator’s recommendations on all or specific issues. If neither party appeals the recommendation, the court undertakes one of the following options: approve the recommendation and make it an order of court; approve the recommendation in part and hold a hearing on the remaining issue(s); remand the recommendation back to the coordinator for more specific information; decline to enter the recommendation as an order and conduct a hearing on the issues. If a timely objection is made and a hearing is required, the recommendation will become an interim order pending the hearing and issuance of a further order by the court.
Custody matters are typically the most high-conflict and costly type of family law cases. By reintroducing the amended parenting coordination rule, the Supreme Court has returned a functional tool to the courts, attorneys and litigants to expedite custody disputes and reduce stress and costs for all parties involved. The hope is that this additional tool will assist all parties involved in achieving the best interests of the children in custody cases.