New York’s Highest Court Requires Hearings for Final Child Custody Determinations
–by Shannon Mumaw
S.L. v. J.R., 56 N.E.3d 193 (2016); Daniel Leddy, Major Custody Ruling by New York’s Highest Court, silive.com (June 20, 2016, 12:17 PM), http://www.silive.com/opinion/danielleddy/index.ssf/2016/06/major_custody_ruling_by_new_yo.html.
The New York Court of Appeals held that in general, final custody determinations should only be made after a full and complete evidentiary hearing.
The mother and father, who were both attorneys, had been married for nearly fifteen years before the mother commenced divorce proceedings against the father and sought full custody of their two minor children. The father, who had left the marital home months before, returned to find that the mother had broken the windows and burned his clothes. The father filed an order to show cause seeking temporary sole legal custody of the children. In addition to incidents of harassment, the father alleged he feared for the children’s safety because the mother engaged in extramarital affairs and abused prescription medication and alcohol.
The trial level court granted the father temporary sole interim legal and physical custody with supervised visitation for the mother, which was later continued by the issuance of a second order. After a court-appointed forensic evaluator concluded that the father was the more “psychologically stable” parent, the court granted full custody to the father without a hearing. Additionally, the court suspended visitation for more than five months, noting that the mother “acknowledged her involvement in many incidents of disturbing behavior.”
In unanimously affirming the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that although custody determinations “generally may only be made following a full and comprehensive evidentiary hearing . . . no hearing is necessary where, as here, ‘the court possesses adequate relevant information to enable it to make an informed and provident determination as to the child’s best interest.’”
On June 9, 2016, the New York Court of Appeals overturned the Appellate Division and held that final custody determinations should only be made after a full hearing is conducted. However, the court declined to fashion a catchall rule mandating a hearing in every case. In its opinion, the court stated that by applying the “undefined and imprecise ‘adequate relevant information’ standard,” the lower courts effectively relied on hearsay statements and the conclusion of a court-appointed forensic evaluator whose opinions and credibility were untested. The court went on to say that such a standard does not adequately protect a parent’s fundamental right to control the upbringing of his or her child.
Further, the court held that taking into consideration the governing principle in all custody determinations—the best interest of the child—there are no absolutes; rather custody determinations must be entrusted to the discretion of the trial court.