The Challenge of Overturning Child Custody Decisions on Appeal in Maryland

In a recent case involving two parents who disagreed regarding where their daughter should attend kindergarten, the outcome of the case is an important reminder of the importance of achieving success at the trial level, due to the deference given to trial courts in child custody cases. Despite finding that the child would derive some benefit from going to the school that would maintain continuity, the trial judge awarded tie-breaking authority on educational decisions to the mother, even though that inevitably meant that the child would attend the school that did not maintain continuity. Nevertheless, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the decision, concluding that the trial court’s decision was not so completely in defiance of logic and the facts of the case as to constitute an “abuse of discretion” and trigger a reversal.

The parents were a couple who had a daughter born in January 2012. The parents had been following a custody and visitation schedule somewhat successfully, but, as the child advanced in age, they reached an impasse on one issue:  where the daughter would attend elementary school.

Unable to resolve this issue, the matter ended up in court. The trial court found each parent to be roughly equally capable in most areas when it came to parenting the child. The court noted that the child would derive some degree of benefit in terms of continuity if she were ordered to attend the elementary school preferred by the father (which was located a short walk from his home), but the judge nevertheless awarded “tie-breaking” authority to the mother with regard to all of the decisions related to education, meaning that the child would attend school a long car ride away.

The father appealed but lost. The appeals court’s opinion upholding what the trial judge ordered is very instructive on the level of deference that appellate courts give to trial court child custody decisions and, therefore, why it is so important to make sure that you put together your best possible argument when you go before a trial court on a custody matter.

Last year, Maryland’s highest court spelled out the proper standard of appellate review for child custody cases. In order to constitute an “abuse of discretion” in a child custody case, a decision must be one in which “no reasonable person would take the view adopted by the court or when the court acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles.” An abuse of discretion can also occur if the appellate court decides that the trial court’s order was clearly against logic and “the effect of facts and inferences before the court.” In other words, trial court child custody rulings will always get affirmed unless the lower court’s “decision is well removed from any center mark imagined by the reviewing court.”

It is not enough to persuade the appeals court that the trial court was probably wrong. A success on appeal in a child custody case requires showing that the trial court’s ruling defies all logic, is completely contrary to the facts of the case, or runs afoul of the law. It requires showing that no reasonable trial judge could order what was ordered. This, obviously, is a very high hurdle.

To give yourself a strong chance of ultimate success, you need to do everything you can to put together a solid case at trial. It pays to be pro-active and consult counsel as early as possible. Experienced Maryland child custody attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has helped many parents deal with their child custody issues. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

How Your Move Can Impact Your Child Custody and Visitation Arrangement in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 23, 2017

Maryland Court Reviews Juvenile Court Custody-Related Order, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, June 16, 2015

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