Last week we blogged about a recent unreported Appellate Division case where I was the attorney for the winning party at trial and on appeal. To view the prior post, click here – to view the Appellate Division opinion, click here. In last week’s post, I blogged about the importance of credibility. There were other interesting parts of the decision.
In this case, the parties agreed that they would have joint legal custody but that the wife would have the children about 60% of the overnights. The husband, however, in what we deemed a game of semantics, would not agree that the wife was the Parent of Primary Residence (PPR), though by definition, since she had the children more than 50% of the time, she was the PPR. There is case law that says that the PPR has final say if parents deadlock on major decisions for the children. Despite this being the law, this was an unresolved issue at trial. The trial court essentially acknowledged the law. The husband appealed claiming that the custody agreement was modified.
The Appellate Division held:
Defendant initially argues that the trial court erred in "setting aside material portions of the Consent Judgment to elevate plaintiff’s decision-making authority" respecting the parties’ two children. We disagree.
This was a bitterly contested divorce as evidenced by the extent of the record and the expense of the litigation. The court recognized that the parties "dispute[d] how to make decisions related to their children" and "recognized the parent of primary residence to be the parent in the better position to make those decisions." The court held that as "primary caretaker," plaintiff "shall decide in the best interest of the children their medical needs and treatment, schooling, expenses, and even religious instruction" because it was not in the children’s interest to "be in the middle of parental conflict" when decisions concerning their welfare needed to be made. The court left intact the parties’ agreement to "confer on all important matters concerning the children’s health, education and general well being" and to use a mediator to resolve disputes that might arise concerning the children. The court concluded that "[t]he parties shall be bound by the terms of their consent judgment fixing custody and parenting time subject to the plaintiff’s authority as parent of primary residence." With respect to extraordinary medical treatment, the parties were to consult each other in advance, except in cases of emergency, and "[n]either party shall unreasonably withhold consent."
We agree that the trial court’s modification of the parties’ consent judgment is in the children’s best interest, considering the hostility between the parties. Kinsella v. Kinsella, 150 N.J. 276, 317 (1997). Should the parties come to a resolution of their hostilities and be able to deal reasonably with each other regarding the children, they may seek to amend the judgment in respect of the custody provisions pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. In the meantime, irrespective of the parties’ agreement, the court properly exercised its "supervisory jurisdiction as parens patriae," in the children’s best interests. Sheehan v. Sheehan, 38 N.J. Super. 120, 125 (App. Div. 1955).
To the extent that parenting agreements are unclear, or there is a dispute as to what joint legal custody means, this case provides some guidance.