All over yesterday’s news, including the Dallas Morning New, were reports that Deion Sanders won his custody trial. As reported, Deion received sole custody of his two sons with his wife, Pilar. The parties also were awarded shared custody of their daughter. In English, Deion will make all educational, health and extracurricular decisions for his two sons, ages 11 and 13, and the parties will share that responsibility for their 9-year-old daughter
As these things tend to be, this was a nasty custody fight, with Pilar making allegations of abuse and Deion alleging that this was all about the money.
For a New Jersey divorce attorney, what is also interesting about this case is that it was decided by a jury of 7 women and 5 men. The concept of a jury deciding custody, or for that matter, any family law issue other than perhaps (but not always) a marital tort, is completely foreign in New Jersey and most jurisdictions. In fact, other than perhaps Georgia, I am unaware of any other jurisdiction where there are jury trials for custody. New York used to have jury trials to decide a contested divorce – i.e. whether the fault cause of action had been proven. I suspect that this too is largely a thing of the past since no-fault divorce was recently enacted in New York, as previously noted on this blog.
In New Jersey, typically custody decisions take weeks if not months to get a decision from a judge. In the Sanders case, the jury deliberated for less than two hours. In New Jersey, the decision is determined less by the he said/she said, mud slinging, and more upon the testimony of one or more custody experts. Moreover, as noted in my blog post last week entitled Custody - Back to Basics, the decision must consider the 14 factors set forth in the custody statute.
Interestingly, when asked under cross examination if he would call his wife during an emergency, Deion answered, “As long as all of this is going on, I will not communicate with her,” He also testified that he stopped counseling because he felt it was a way for Pilar Sanders to gain a “competitive advantage” in the trial and find things out about the children.
I recently posted a blog entitled "How Can There Be Joint Legal Custody If the Parties Cannot Cooperate and Refuse to Communicate." That seems particularly apropos when considering the Sanders case. However, again, should the custodial parent’s refusal to communicate create a fait accompli leading to an award of sole custody?
Also interesting is that Deion was apparently tweeting from the court room. In fact, he tweeted that his attorneys would cross-examine Pilar Sanders and “catch her in a multitude of lies.” While this may have been true, given the media coverage, and the digital age where things will last forever on the internet, one wonders why either would disparage the other to the media when the kids will be able to see it now and in the future.
Finally, this trial only resolved a piece of the litigation. Parenting time has not been resolved nor have the finances. Stay tuned for the next game in this divorce Super Bowl.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric practices in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.