THE INFORMAL CUSTODY ARRANGEMENT AND ITS IMPACT ON PERMANENT CUSTODY

September 26, 2011 § 3 Comments

I talked here before about the Varner case, which holds that a child-support-paying parent (the father in that case) who has a child come to live with him may receive a credit against unpaid child support for that de facto custodial time. In Varner, the mother had court-ordered custody, but the parties made a handshake deal for the child to go and live with the father for a time.

Taking a similar set of facts, would the father have a basis to ask the court to modify custody?

In Arnold v. Conwill, 562 So.2d 97 (Miss. 1990), the father had the son with him for 16 months because of the mother’s unsettled living situation. The mother had asked the father to take the boy until she could get settled. When she did get into a stable situation, she asked the father to return the child to her custody. When he refused, she picked the child up from school, enrolled him in a new school, and resumed full-time custody of the son. The father filed a modification action, and the chancellor granted him custody due to the 16-month period.

On appeal, the MSSC recited the familiar material change-adverse effect-best interest test for changing custody. Applying that test to the facts of the case, the court said (at 100):

“To her credit, when she fell upon hard times, appellant called the child’s father for help. The custody was temporarily interrupted because of conditions over which she had no control. When she stabilized the situation, she asked appellee to restore custody to her and he declined. The parties’ act, in temporarily modifying the decree, was not binding on the court. The only change in circumstances, upon which the appellant can rely, and which the court accepted, was the fact that the father had custody for sixteen moths while the appellant, the mother, had liberal visitation withh the child.

Simply, the facts of this case do not reflect a material change in the circumstances of the parties and the child, which adversely affected [the child], to the extent that his custody should be changed from appellant to appellee.”

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the 21 years since this case was decided, but I believe it is still good law for the above points, and it has never been overruled or criticized. There are, however, two wrinkles:

  • At page 100, there is this statement: “The courts do not favor separating siblings when their parents divorce.” That concept has been refined since then to provide that, although separation is not favored, there is no hard and fast rule about separation, but it is one of many factors to be considered by the court among the Albright factors for determination of best interest. See, for example, Kimbrough v. Kimbrough, decided by the COA May 3, 2011.
  • And on the same page is the statement that the facts of the case did not reflect material change-adverse effect-best interest, and “Neither did the motion so charge nor the chancellor so find.” As we’ve discussed before, the law now is that if you fail to plead the elements of custody modification, your case is subject to being dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

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