AUTOMATIC MODIFICATION OF CHILD CUSTODY

August 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

You are representing your client in an irreconcilable differences divorce, and the long-awaited PSA has arrived in the mail from counsel opposite. Here are the provisions dealing with custody:

(g) So as to insure a fit and proper environment for the rearing of the minor children, the parties agree that in the event there is a scintilla of evidence of unmarried sexual activity by wife where the minor children are residing or in the vicinity of the minor children, wife shall immediately forfeit and be divested of all custody rights with respect to the minor children, custody of the minor children thereupon automatically vesting in husband, subject only the right of wife to have reasonable visitation with the minor children at reasonable times and places.

(h) In furtherance of the concept of a “home base” hereinabove discussed, the parties agree that the children shall reside in the Columbus, Mississippi area. Wife agrees to give husband sixty (60) days advance written notice of any intended relocation. Unless both parties agree that the children may be removed from the Columbus, Mississippi area to this new location, wife shall be divested of custody of the minor children upon such relocation and custody shall thereupon be vested in husband subject to further orders of the Court. Wife shall have the right to reasonable visitation with the minor children at all reasonable times and places during this period until the matter is finally determined by the Court.

(i) During the portion of the year in which the children reside with wife, wife agrees to give husband advance notice of any trips she plans out of the town of Columbus, Mississippi and further agrees to limit any out of Columbus, Mississippi trips to not more than three nights and to provide husband with information regarding her destination and location so as to afford him a basis to communicate with her if necessary. Furthermore, during such out of town trips, husband, at his option, shall have the right to have custody of the minor children.

It looks pretty much like what your client has told you was her agreement. She and her soon-to-be ex want the children to have some stability, and she wants this divorce over so she can get on with her life. If that’s what her husband wants, she is willing to agree to it just to get this over with.

Subparagraph (g) would effect an immediate change in custody in the event that your client engaged in unmarried sexual activity “where the children are residing” or in their vicinity, and the burden of proof would be a “scintilla of evidence,” a humble standard by any measure.

Subparagraph (h) would create an automatic modification of custody if your client relocates from the Columbus, Mississippi, area.

Subparagraph (i) essentially provides that unless the father gives your client permission to take the children out of town for longer than tree nights, she must give him custody for the duration of such trips.

What is your advice to her?

Check out the case of McManus v. Howard, 569 So.2d 1213 (Miss. 1990). There, the parties had agreed to the very terms cited above, which were approved by the chancellor.  Later, the mother sought either a modification or an MRCP 57 declaratory judgment that the agreement was unenforceable as to subparagraphs (h) and (i). It appears that neither party injected subparagraph (g) into the litigation, but one can speculate that it was a tactical decision by counsel to avoid an appearance of wanting to promote or condone inappropriate activity. The MSSC did not explain why it referenced the provision in its opinion.

The chancellor denied modification for the reason that the material change-adverse effect-best interest test had not been met. He denied declaratory judgment on the ground that the parties had contracted for the custodial arrangement, and their contractual agreement should be enforced.

In the MSSC opinion, Justice Blass wrote (at page 1216):

“Being given jurisdiction by Miss.Code Ann. 93-5-24(6) (Supp.1990) and the children being wards of the state, Tighe v. Moore, 246 Miss. 649, 666, 151 So.2d 910, 917 (1963) and there being an ample body of the case law for the guidance of the court, Arnold v. Conwill, 562 So.2d 97, 99 (Miss.1990); Rutledge v. Rutledge, 487 So.2d 218, 219 (Miss.1986), the court simply cannot surrender or subordinate its jurisdiction and authority as to the circumstances and conditions which will cause a change in custody. We hold such an Agreement to be void and contrary to public policy. We have recently considered a similar problem and have reached the same conclusion. Bell v. Bell, No. 89-1108 (Miss. Oct. 3, 1990). Accordingly, we reverse, and grant judgment here for the declaratory judgment as to later sub-paragraphs 2(h) and 2(i). No other matters were submitted to this Court by the appeal.

The Bell case cited by the court found unenforceable an agreement between the parties under which the children were required to live in Tupelo until majority, and the relocation of the custodial parent would trigger an automatic modification of custody. Bell v. Bell, 572 So.2d 841, 845 (Miss. 1990). 

The MSSC in McManus held that subparagraphs (h) and (i) above were unenforceable and reversed the chancellor’s ruling. There was no mention of subparagraph (g), because it was not a part of the underlying suit and was not raised on appeal, but the court’s rationale would apply to it as well, in my opinion.

It was my experience as a practitioner that parties occasionally wanted to include similar provisions in their PSA’s. Our chancellors would not approve an agreement that included the language, and I so advised my clients.

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§ 2 Responses to AUTOMATIC MODIFICATION OF CHILD CUSTODY

  • randywallace says:

    Part of me wants to say “but the parties agreed to it!”

    The flip side is that that there are some things that agreement of the parties just will not suffice for. While it might not have been in the best interests of the custodial parent, it is hard to make a serious argument that it wasn’t in the best interests of the child to reexamine custody under the changed circumstanes.

    • Larry says:

      Some lawyers have addressed this by including language that the move would constitute a “material change in circumstances,” so that the court could determine on a proper petition whether there is an adverse effect and what would be in the best interest of the children. I’m still not sure whether that would pass muster with the appellate courts, but that language would certainly not deprive the court of its exclusive decision-making authority; rather, it would trigger the decision-making process.

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