In a decision issued on May 31, 2017, the Superior Court clarified the limit of the sanctions that can be applied in a custody matter when a parent is found to have violated a custody order.
Mother and Father separated in March, 2014. Father filed a custody complaint and the parties agreed that Mother would enjoy primary physical custody of the children pending a custody trial.
The interim order prohibited either party from relocating without court approval. A month later, Mother filed a counter claim for custody along with a notice of relocation. Father challenged the relocation.
Mother moved to another county, 1 1/2 hours away, without either Father’s agreement or Court approval. She also enrolled one of the children in preschool without consulting with Father. Father then filed a petition for special relief and asked the court to find Mother in contempt of the interim custody order.
The trial court found Mother in contempt for the unauthorized relocation and for enrolling the child in preschool.
The trial court issued sanctions by ordering Father to have primary physical custody and directing mother to reimburse Father’s attorney fees.
The Superior Court found that a change of primary custody was not an appropriate sanction. A change of custody can be made only after taking evidence and issuing a determination based on an analysis of the best interest of the children. In this case, Father’s petition and notice of hearing did not notify Mother that a change of primary custody was at stake. In addition, the trial court did not consider the necessary factors to determine that a change of primary custody was best for the children.
The Superior Court did not hold that a change of custody can never be an appropriate sanction. If appropriate notice had been given, and a determination regarding the best interest factors, the change of custody would have been upheld.
Lehigh Valley Family Law is a publication of KingSpry’s Family Law Practice Group. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.