Perhaps one of the most difficult decisions a Court will make in the area of family law are those regarding custody. The Court makes its determination on custody by examining what is in the best interests of the child. How the Court determines what is in the child’s best interests often involves a very detailed factual analyses of varying factors, including, but not limited to, the current custody arrangement, the current home environment, the financial status of the parties, the ability of each parent to provide for the emotional and intellectual development, whether the custodial parent will encourage a good relationship with the non-custodial parent, and the wishes of the child.
On May 1st, 2014, the First Department issued a decision, Melissa C.D. v. Rene I.D. , which is a good example of how the Court applies the various factors in determining the best interests of the child. In Melissa C.D., it appeared that the status quo (the child’s living with her father), the neutral expert’s opinion that the child remain with the father, and the child’s express wish to remain living with her father (the child was 14 and so her opinion was given substantial weight), were the prominent factors in the First Department’s decision. The Court held it would not be in the child’s best interest to remove her “against her wishes, from her father and brother in Manhattan, where she has always lived, and placing her with her mother and her mother’s lover, a situation that she is not comfortable with, on Long Island, in a community that she does not know.”
Interestingly, in an apparent nod to recent case law, holding that the parent who is more likely to encourage a good relationship with the other parent should be granted custody, the First Department to specifically held that the father’s conduct herein “did not rise to the level of deliberately frustrating, denying or interfering with the parent rights of the mother so as to raise doubts about his custodial fitness.” Thus, one cannot understate the emphasis the Courts are giving to that factor now as, even where the child is living with the father, the neutral has issued an opinion that the child should live with the father, and the child has expressed a desire to stay with the father, the Court still made sure to make this specific finding.
Significantly, although the First Department reversed the trial court and granted the father sole custody, it still cautioned the father to “consider the effects of his comments to the children, to refrain from interfering from the children’s relationship with the mother and to do all that is within his power to encourage and support their relationship with her.” This further buttresses the importance of this one factor.