A Caveat About Joint Custody Arrangements

May 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

When Suresa and Derrium Todd got an irreconcilable-differences divorce, they agreed that they would share joint legal and physical custody. Only thing is, their agreement did not spell out a schedule for how that custody would be shared. Notwithstanding that omission, the chancellor who granted the divorce found the agreement “adequate and sufficient,” and granted the divorce.

Two years after the divorce they were back in court over Derrium’s allegations that Suresa was not properly caring for the child. His proof at trial, however, was that the child was happy and well-cared for. There was no proof of a material change and adverse effect; however, the proof was that the custody arrangement was unworkable absent a specific schedule. So the chancellor conducted an Albright analysis and awarded Derrium sole custody. Suresa appealed.

Now, you can probably guess that the COA reversed. They did, in Todd v. Todd, handed down April 18, 2017. Judge Irving’s opinion reiterated the familiar rule that there can be no modification absent a showing of material change and adverse effect.

What I found interesting was what the COA expects chancellors to do when confronted by a joint custody arrangement that has proven to be unworkable due to the lack of a schedule, or due to a change in the parties’ schedules, or maybe due to the fact that the child was an infant when the agreement was entered into but is now school age. Do we still require a material change coupled with an adverse effect, or do we apply a lesser standard such as we do in visitation cases? Whatever the standard, it is clear in these cases that something has to be done for the best interest of the child.

Judge Irving spoke to the issue:

¶11. One final matter bears discussion. If, on remand, the chancellor finds no merit to Derrium’s complaint or Suresa’s counterclaim [for modification of custody], Derrium and Suresa will still have joint physical custody of their child. It will be necessary to determine a custody schedule, as it was probably error to find that the parties’ agreement was “adequate and sufficient” without one. See Selman v. Selman, 722 So. 2d 547, 554 (¶33) (Miss. 1998) (holding that plain error resulted where a chancellor’s child-support award was ambiguous, and it was necessary to remand the issue for clarification “to prevent friction between the parties”). Derrium and Suresa could resolve the issue through an agreement that the chancellor finds “adequate and sufficient” before incorporating it into an amended divorce judgment. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(2) (Rev. 2013). Alternatively, they could allow the chancellor to resolve the issue for them. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(3) (Rev. 2013). Under either circumstance, a joint physical-custody schedule should provide each parent with “significant periods of physical custody . . . in such a way so as to assure [their] child of frequent and continuing contact with both parents.” See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-24(5)(c) (Rev. 2013). But that does not necessarily mean that each parent would have to get equal time with their daughter. See Collins v. Collins, 20 So. 3d 683, 692 (¶44) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008).

So, yes, the chancellor, short of modification of custody, may proceed to clarify the original custody arrangement so as to eliminate friction between the parties.

But note Judge Irving’s caution that “it was probably error to find that the parties’ agreement was ‘adequate and sufficient’” without a custody schedule. To that, I say Amen. But in saying that I am not being critical of the chancellor who granted the divorce. I have been in those shoes many times, with lawyers imploring me that “these are good people, judge; they will work it out.” Or, “Judge, we had a hard time reaching a final agreement, and there was a lot of give and take; we had to leave this the way it is or we would not have an agreement at all.”

Hindsight is always cataract-free and eagle-eyed. It always sees in sharp focus what a thoughtful person either (a) should have seen at the time, or (b) deluded himself or herself into thinking all would turn out peachy keen despite the flaws in the agreement.

When you bid your client farewell after the judgment is entered, that client believes that you covered all the bases and protected him or her from further litigation. If you kick the can down the road, it does not mean that the can has disappeared. It’s still there for someone to trip over later and get cut on the rough edges.



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