Parent’s Role as Primary Caretaker is Relevant but not Paramount under Pennsylvania Custody Law

by Brian Vertz on April 5, 2013

The Pennsylvania custody law, promulgated in 2011, lists 16 factors that a trial court must consider when determining which parent shall have custody of minor children. Already, in the brief time since the law’s passage, the Superior Court has emphasized repeatedly that the courts must consider and articulate all of the relevant factors in its decisions. See M.P. v. M.P., 54 A.3d 950, 956 (Pa.Super.2012). Several of those factors touch upon which parent has historically and will prospectively provide care for the child, from preparing meals and washing clothes to arranging medical appointments and play dates. The custody law does not specify how much weight is to be assigned to each of these 16 criteria, however.

In M.J.M. v. M.L.G., 2013 PA Super. 40 (March 1, 2013), the Superior Court considered the appeal of a mother who lost primary physical custody of a 6 year old child to the child’s father, in the context of a highly acrimonious and litigious custody action. Prior to the most recent proceeding, Mother had succeeded in restricting Father to supervised visitation and settled a dispute that allowed her to relocate the child from Greensburg to Fairmont, West Virginia. Both parents initiated mulitple contempt proceedings and accused the other parent and their families of child abuse. A custody trial ensued, resulting in a trial court order directing Mother to reliquish primary custody to Father in time for school enrollment, with a promise of a more complete explanation to be issued within a week. Mother filed an appeal.

On appeal, the Superior Court held (1) that the trial court was not required to issue its detailed explanation simultaneously with its decision; and (2) while a thorough analysis is required, the court is not required to address every detail with citations to the evidentiary record in its decision.

The Court also refuted Mother’s argument that her role as the child’s primary care taker was not adequately considered. Citing extensive case law, the Court held that the “primary caretaker doctrine” was applicable primarily in cases where both parents were equally fit; and in this case, the trial court had reservations about the quality of care Mother was providing. Furthermore, the primary caretaker doctrine was not explicitly listed or given special consideration among the 16 statutory factors that a trial court must consider under the 2011 custody law. The Court concluded that “the primary caretaker doctrine, insofar as it required positive emphasis on the primary caretaker’s status, is no longer viable.”

This decision seems consistently with what many lawyers perceive as a shift toward shared physical custody and the equal rights of both parents in custody proceedings. Once, in cases where both parents were equally fit, the law provided an advantage to the parent who had been historically more prominent in the child’s rearing, but today the law provides a more even playing field. This is not to say, however, that the court must start from a presumption of shared physical custody, particularly in a case where one parent is more fit, or other statutory factors weigh heavily in favor of one parent.

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