Non-Custodial Dangers

April 28, 2015 § 1 Comment

It’s pretty hard to say “No” to a distraught mother who wants to modify custody or visitation because she is concerned that her 8- and 6-year-old boys are imperiled by the father who is letting the children ride a mini-4-wheeler during his custodial time, and is allowing the children to do things like: running barefoot all over his farm; playing down by the pond where the children might fall in or get swallowed by a water moccasin; or riding a pony; or riding in the back of a pickup or on a trailer across the pasture to and from the chicken houses; or jumping from the hayloft into the hay below.

That’s the fact pattern that a mom alleged against my client back in the 1990’s. A very wise chancellor observed that what town children are allowed to do is quite different than what “our country cousins” experience, and, in the absence of specific evidence that any of the children were actually endangered, he would not change anything.

That same principle came into play in the case of Nurkin v. Nurkin, decided April 7, 2015, in which Caroline Nurkin had complained to the chancellor that her ex-husband Brad was endangering their son during visitation by flying him to and from visitation in a private plane. The chancellor enjoined Brad from transporting the child in a private aircraft, and Brad appealed. Here’s what Judge Lee said for the unanimous court:

¶13. Brad cites to Mord v. Peters, 571 So. 2d 981 (Miss. 1990), to support his position. In Mord, the chancellor restricted the father’s ability to fly his children in his private plane. Id. at 983. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the chancellor’s decision and found that absent any showing that flying with the father would be dangerous or that the father was acting without concern for the children’s well being, neither the mother nor the chancellor had the right to restrict the children’s activities during visitation with their father. Id. at 984-85. In this instance, there was no testimony other than Caroline’s unfounded fears that Brad’s operation of a plane would endanger Jake’s life. As the supreme court stated in Mord, “Were we to affirm the chancellor’s position . . . endless litigation possibly would result. We can imagine custodial parents coming to court based on unjustified fears and apprehensions and attempt[ing] to prohibit their children from learning how to drive, fish, hunt[,] or swim when a non-custodial parent is exercising his . . . visitation.” Id. at 986. Furthermore, Brad testified that Jake enjoyed flying with him. There was no testimony that Jake was scared or anxious when flying.

¶14. “A non-custodial parent may determine which extra[]curricular activities the child participates in during visitation, including certain activities of which the custodial parent disapproves.” Givens v. Nicholson, 878 So. 2d 1073, 1076 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). Finding the chancellor’s decision erroneous, we reverse and render on this issue.

Of no particular relevance, but of minor interest, is that the appellant in Mord  was and is a practicing attorney in Mississippi.

The main point is that restrictions on visitation, and in particular on the visiting parent’s conduct with the child, are not favored in our law. A few bullet points:

  • The overnight boyfriend or girlfriend. Absent some objective proof of adverse effect on the children, the ancient custom of enjoining overnight guests of the opposite gender to whom the parent is not related by blood or marriage is no longer allowed. See, Harrington v. Harrington, 648 So.2d 543, 547 (Miss. 1994); Robinson v. Robinson, 722 So.2d 601, 605 (Miss. 1998).
  • Restrictions on religious practices are always suspect and rarely upheld. A visiting father was permitted to take his child to a snake-handling church service, so long as the child was not permitted to touch or get within danger of being bitten. Harris v. Harris, 343 So.2d 762 (Miss. 1977). Even a chancellor’s comment about a parent’s religious beliefs may call a chancellor’s ruling into question. See, e.g., Muhammad v. Muhammad, 622 So.2d 1239 (Miss.1993).
  • Professor Bell lists several other categories in which restrictions on visitation have been upheld to a greater or lesser extent: abusive behavior; family or spousal violence; dangerous conduct; emotional abuse; potential kidnapping; imprisonment; mental health issues; poor parenting r household conditions; sexual conduct; and interference with visitation. D. Bell, Bell on Mississippi Familly Law, 2nd Ed. § 12.08[4][a] through [i] and [5].

These can be issues that are fraught with emotion, and it’s not easy to persuade your client that a futile trip to court is not in his or her, or the child’s, best interest. The more you know about this area, the better equipped you’ll be to advise your client.

 

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