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Custody factors and custody orders

In this 2015 case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court smacked down a judge in York County, PA for his continued refusal to properly apply the 16 best interest factors of 23 Pa.C.S.A. 5328 (a) and the factors regarding grandparents rights of 23 Pa.C.S.A. 5328(c) to a custody decision.

In this case, Mother and Father were separated when Father died in an auto accident. Father's parents then filed a joint petition, pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. 5325 (1), asking for partial physical custody of their grandchildren, due to the death of their son.

Initially, the Judge granted the grandparents "interim" partial physical custody. After that, Mother's new husband adopted the children, but this adoption was overturned because grandparents were not notified of the proceedings as "interested parties". This apparently angered the judge, who then took away the grandparents partial custody at a final custody hearing.

The judge appears to have been quite the curmudgeon. In fact, the judge began the case by announcing that he had not held a custody trial in 5 years and was not happy with the 2011 custody law that required extra effort from the judge.

The judge then took away the grandparents' partial custody rights, via a decision that did not consider the 16 custody factors or the grandparents factors. On appeal, the PA Superior Court vacated and remanded the decision because the judge failed to apply the required factors.

So, the judge then issued a new decision that technically mentioned every factor but, really, the judge ignored all the factors beyond listing them - except for the grandparents irrelevant criminal past.

So, the Superior Court vacated and remanded the judge's decision again. In a prior case from 2013, the Superior Court had previously noted that "there is no required amount of detail for the court's explanation; all that is required is that the enumerated factors are considered and that the custody decision is based on those considerations".

Apparently, the judge thought he could use this "loophole" to just list the factors without giving a genuine analysis (i.e. the judge followed the letter of rule but thumbed his nose at the spirit of the requirement). The Superior Court did not appreciate being played like fools and tossed it back.

This is another confirmation that judge's must really give a thorough "best interests" analysis as part of a custody decision, based upon the relevant factors.

Another lesson may be more subtle. This same angry judge will now decide the case again for the third time. So long as the judge includes a proper analysis, he can probably still keep the grandparents from exercising reasonable custody. Judge's have a lot of power. Cheesing a judge off for no eventual gain (by contesting the adoption), may yet cost the grandparents their partial custody of their grandson.