Case Notes: 16-factor custody analysis not always required in PA

In the case of M.O. v. J.T.R., 2014 Pa. Super. 15 (February 2014), the Pennsylvania Superior Court thankfully held that a trial court need not embark on the standard 16-factor custody analysis when deciding narrow custody issues.

Here, Father and Mother agreed upon a custody arrangements with only one unresolved issue: Whether Father was required to stay home from work during his summer vacation periods with his minor sons. The trial court ruled that Father did not need to stay home during those periods. Mother then appealed to the PA Superior Court on the issue and lost.

The Superior Court noted that cases involving a change in primary custody must undergo the 16-factor analysis under 23 Pa.C.S. 5328. But simple modification of custody is governed by 23 Pa.C.S. 5328(a), which does not refer to the 16 custody factors. Instead, the Superior Court held that the basic "best interests of the child" principle guided custody modifications. In this case, the trial court used the "best interest" standard and gave the reasons for its decision and so the trial court decision was upheld.

In explaining its decision, the Superior Court wrote:

As discussed above, the trial court here did not make an award of custody. It merely modified a single discrete and narrow ancillary issue.

Indeed, any other decision would have been absurd. What possible relevance could the boys need for educational stability or the boys sibling relationship have upon the issue of whether Father needs to be home during his vacation periods?

Finally, the real shame here is that a parent took such a narrow issue all the way to the Superior Court - a process costing thousands of dollars and many hours. There was no way that Mother was going to get this decision overturned. Such narrow issues are almost always left to the discretion of the trial court. And even had Mother won the issue at Superior Court, the case almost certainly would have been "remanded" to the trial court. The trial court would then make the same decision again, albeit with a slightly different analysis.

Morals of this case: (1) Get the first decision right, because appeals of custody determinations are usually (though not always) losing propositions; and (2) Don't waste your money, time or life on losing battles. Hire an experienced attorney and listen to their recommendations. Knowing which battles to fight (or not fight) is one of the key elements of a good family law attorney.