Maryland Court Did Not Rule Improperly in Granting Joint Custody to Fighting Parents

1402625_handsIn March 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the divorce and child custody case of Reichert v. Hornbeck that illustrated the broad leeway courts have in making child custody determinations. The case arose out of the rocky romantic relationship that ensued when Jeffrey, a recent law school graduate, met Sarah, who was preparing to go to law school. The couple broke up after three years. They reunited in 2008 and got engaged. By then, Jeffrey had moved up the corporate legal ladder. Sarah had also succeeded professionally, earning about $120,000 a year at a firm.  However, she later left her firm for a new job that paid only $68,340 a year.

Jeffrey and Sarah moved into a three-story rental in Baltimore and got married. During their honeymoon however, they experienced the same kind of conflict they had in the earlier incarnation of their relationship.  These issues continued through the rest of their marriage.

Despite these difficulties, Sarah gave birth to a son, Grant, in 2009. Born with a collapsed lung, he soon experienced medical complications that required emergency surgery. The couple tried to get along during his sickness in order to be good parents to him. When Grant got better, the couple tried marriage counseling, but that failed. After the last session Sarah tried to get a protective order, but couldn’t. Jeffrey served her with divorce and custody papers, and his attorney told her he had filed for a protective order.

Sarah filed a counter complaint for limited divorce, custody, and child support, as well as an answer. She wanted sole physical custody of Grant with joint legal custody. Jeffrey wanted joint physical as well as joint legal custody.

The circuit court granted a divorce. After discussing how both Jeffrey and Sarah were good parents to Grant in spite of how they treated each other, the judge awarded joint physical and legal custody of the child with tie-breaking authority to Sarah. The judge explained that he provided tie-breaking authority with the understanding that a parent coordinator would be used in order to facilitate communication between Sarah and Jeffrey. The court also made child support orders and awarded Sarah $60,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Jeffrey filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment in 2011. Sarah opposed this motion and moved to revise the court’s previous judgment and get additional attorneys’ fees. The trial court ultimately denied Sarah’s motion for further fees.  Jeffrey ultimately appealed and Sarah cross-appealed.

Among the six questions on appeal was whether the trial court abused its discretion when it ordered joint physical and legal custody of Grant with tie-breaking authority to Sarah, which Jeffrey argued was an abuse of discretion due to a lack of evidence supporting the decision that Sarah deserved that authority. Sarah argued that the trial court should not have awarded joint physical custody because it was not in the best interest of the child.  She further argued that the trial court should have paid more attention to Jeffrey’s abuse of the legal system in trying to get custody.

The Court of Appeals found no abuse. The Court of Appeals explained that in these types of cases, it must defer to the lower court’s better ability to judge the witnesses’ credibility at trial. Child custody must be determined case by case and in the best interests of the child. Trial courts look at many factors, including the fitness of the parents, the child’s needs, the environment in which the child will be raised, potential influences, and the child’s own preference if the child is old enough. Joint custody depends upon the capacity of the parents to communicate and reach decisions together, among many other factors. Although this doesn’t mean that the parents must agree on everything, the trial court will look at the parents’ track record for getting along.

Nonetheless, when a trial judge concludes that joint custody is appropriate even though the parents have a bad track record of willingness to cooperate, the trial judge has to give reasons.  In this case, there was actually evidence of the parties’ ability to cooperate when it came to their son, though they didn’t get along. Among the pieces of evidence the Court of Appeals evaluated was that the pair followed a joint custody agreement before trial. Both parties had testified that they understood they needed to work together to address their child’s needs.

Custody battles like the one described in this case can be difficult and time-consuming. If you are dealing with Maryland family law matters, the best interests of you and your child depend on hiring a qualified and knowledgeable attorney. Contact lawyer Anthony Fatemi and his legal team for a legal consultation. They have years of experience handling Maryland family law issues, including divorce, prenuptial agreements, separation agreements, property distribution, custody arrangements, alimony, and domestic violence.

More Blogs:

Same Sex Marriage in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 4, 2013

Maryland Court Affirms Constitutionality of Rules Regarding Natural Parent’s Objections, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 3, 2013

Case Summary: Sole Legal Physical Custody Awarded to Dad, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 21, 2013

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