Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lawyers Should Not Interview Children in Custody Disputes

Even the thought of some of our colleagues, cornering the little children of their clients in a conference room in order to elicit a parental preference, causes recurring nightmares.  Fortunately, the Michigan Court of Appeals agrees, recently holding that a family court judge cannot order the parents' lawyers to interview their minor children to ascertain their preference among their parents.

Divorce at its ugliest; an old-fashioned custody dispute.  According to the Child Custody Act, the family court must consider all 11 enumerated factors in deciding which parent has custody.  One of the factors is the reasonable preference of the child.

In the Donohue v Donohue case, the Court of Appeals noted that the applicable court rule only provides for family court professionals to conduct such interviews.  The 3-judge appellate panel's opinion stated, "these interviews are meant to be confidential exchanges between the court and the child."

In this case, an Ingham County family court judge grossly misinterpreted the applicable statute and court rule.  Forcing a child to state her preference in an interview with her parents' respective advocates is wrong in the worst kind of way.  No child should have to deal with his or her parents' lawyer.

The intermediate appellate court recognized the potential for influence peddling and the exacerbation of emotional turmoil.  Here at this blog, we saw this case as a "no brainer".  Parental advocates should not be used to determine a child's reasonable preference.

Some tasks, particularly those assigned to the judiciary by the legislature, cannot be delegated to the attorneys.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When Father is Relegated to the Weekend Parent

By: Timothy P. Flynn

A case that caught our attention from the Michigan Court of Appeals last month deserves mention in this blog.  The case comes from the St. Clair County's Family Court; the family court judge that ruled in Mother's favor to allow a significant modification of the parenting schedule was reversed by the Court of Appeals.

In Burke v Lobodzinski, the family court judge sided with Mother in her petition to modify the child's week-on-week-off parenting schedule, allowing Mother to move with the child from Bay City to Troy.  The parenting schedule was modified so that Mother had the child during the school year and Father had evey-other-weekend.

In doing so, the family court judge was in part swayed by Mother's testimony that the move allowed her to be a "stay-at-home" mom due to her husband's new job.  The effect of the ruling was to relegate Father to a weekend parent.

Even though the move was not more than 100-miles [a statutory threshold], the family court held that it was significant because it involved a change in school districts for the child, and made the alternating weekly parenting schedule untenable.  The lower court concluded the proposed move was in the child's best interests, and Dad lost out.

In reversing the St. Clair Family Court judge, the Court of Appeals was persuaded by two things: a) since the proposed move would alter the established custodial environment of the child, the lower court utilized the lower burden of proof [preponderance of the evidence] instead of the intermediate burden [clear and convincing evidence]; and b) Mother may have provided false testimony about being a stay-at-home mom when, in fact, she was employed as a clerk at the Macomb County Circuit Court.

The burden of proof is significant in cases like this.  Mother's motion, if decided on a preponderance standard, is easier to establish and thus prevail.  If Mother had the heightened burden, the motion is more difficult to carry.

As for lying to the court about her job, that too should be taken into account.  On remand, however, the Court of Appeals noted that the lower court should also take into account the fact that the child was allowed to continue living with her Mother in Troy during the year this case took to decide on appeal.

Custody of our children, much like the possession of chattel, seems to be driven by the age-old principle: possession is nine tenths of the law.