Sunday, July 17, 2005

Recent Case Law

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania (the appellate court) has decided several family law cases in the past few months. Here is a brief description of a few of the cases:

When parents are separated, where should the children enroll in school: Mother or Father's school district?
In Fox v. Garzilli, 2005 PA Super 175 (May 2005); the Superior Court addresses a case in which the children were enrolled in Father's school district but Mother wanted them enrolled in the school district where she lives. Mother and Father originally agreed that the children would enroll in Father's school district. However, this agreement was "without prejudice to either party seeking a change in the school." "Without prejudice" is legal lingo in this case that means that an agreement is being entered into but the parties contemplate that it may change later and when a change is considered, both parties stand on equal footing. One party does not have a greater burden to prove why the status quo should change.
In this case, the court looked at all of the factors and reversed the trial court's decision. Ultimately, Mother prevailed. However, it is significant to note that, according to the opinion, the hearing in this matter took place in June 2004, which is when the trial court ordered that the children enroll in Father's school district. The Superior Court's order came out on May 13, 2005. Mother waited nearly a year for the decision, albeit in her favor. This means, however, that the children also spent a year in a school district that they would ultimately leave.

Can you invalidate a divorce agreement after the fact by later claiming that you were suffering from depression and anxiety and were not competent to enter into an agreement?
In Sneeringer v. Sneeringer, 2005 PA Super 210 (June 2005), the Superior Court was faced with a case where a Wife filed a petition with the trial court to invalidate a marital agreement after it was signed but before the divorce decree was entered. She claimed that she was depressed and anxious and therefore in no condition to sign an agreement. Furthermore, she claimed that she had not received full and fair disclosure of her husband's assets. The trial court denied her petition and she appealed to the Superior Court. However, because the divorce decree has not yet been entered, the Superior Court quashed the appeal. Basically, because of this technicality, Wife will have to re-file her appeal, once the lower court enters the divorce decree.
This case is a great example of why any party should think very carefully before signing an agreement in a divorce matter. Once signed, it is often difficult, if not impossible to undo these agreements. It can also get very expensive to file petitions and then appeals. I recommend that clients take the time to read agreements thoroughly and then put it away and take it out again, a few days or a week later. Look at it with fresh eyes. Unfortunately, sometimes people sign an agreement just to put an end to tiring and expensive litigation. However, agreeing to unsatisfactory provisions simply delays more trouble and expense.

When a grandparent cares for and has custody of a child due to the parent's inability or unavailability, will the court award custody of that child back to the parent, upon the parent's request?
In Jordan v. Jackson, 2005 PA Super 208 (June 2005), the Superior Court faced a case in which the grandparents had cared for the child due to the death of the Father and Mother's criminal behavior and addiction to drugs. Mother eventually reformed her behavior and requested custody of her child. After home evaluations and a hearing, the trial court ultimately awarded custody back to Mother. Grandparents appealed but were unsuccessful. The Superior Court stressed that these decisions are made "in the best interest of the child" and after considering all of the factors, there was not enough evidence to prevent mother from regaining custody. The Superior Court also commented that Mother had demonstrated sufficient redemption so that she should be given the opportunity to exercise her right as a parent.

The text of these cases is available on the website of Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial System: http://www.aopc.org/Index/Opinions/IndexOpinions.asp.

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