“Res Judicata” precludes parties from re-litigating any suit that is based on the same (earlier) cause of action. This means that parties may not bring the same claim, based on the same facts, time and time again. While the principle of res judicata applies to child custody cases, courts may entertain a custody issue, involving the same child or children, if the parent is seeking the modification of a custody arrangement due to a change in circumstances since the previous court order. The outcome of any child custody case will have a tremendous impact on the family going forward – financially, emotionally, and logistically. To sufficiently protect your rights, you are encouraged to contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney as early in the process as possible.
No two child custody cases are alike. Parents may dispute any number of issues, including physical and legal custody, as well as visitation and child support. In fact, a couple in a recent custody case argued over the child’s surname (among other things). Here, the parents were never married but had a son together in 2009. The mother failed to place the father’s name on the birth certificate and did not give the child the father’s last name. The father argued that the mother did not tell him when their son was born.
The father has not disputed the issue of paternity, and during the custody litigation he made a motion to change their son’s name to reflect his. The court granted this motion, but the mother quickly sought review of that decision. The circuit court vacated the order but remanded the issue for a future hearing. Over the following months, there were many motions and orders pertaining to custody, but the court never revisited the issue of the child’s surname. The mother moved to dismiss the father’s petition, which the court granted and further advised the father on the procedural steps to take to effectuate his petition to change the name. After a series of filings based upon this original petition, the court ultimately denied the father’s request.
In 2014, the father filed a second petition to change the child’s surname, to which the mother objected, arguing that nothing had changed since the first petition. The court concluded that res judicata did not apply here because there was never a final decision on the merits. Furthermore, the court concluded that it would be in the best interests of the child to take his father’ surname. The mother appealed, arguing that the second petition should have been dismissed based on res judicata. The court of appeals agreed.
The court pointed out that the mother’s res judicata argument depends on whether the father’s cause of action (to change his son’s surname) was ever decided on the merits. The court reviewed the elements under which res judicata would apply. In child custody cases, the court pointed out, res judicata would not apply if one parent argued a change in circumstances since the last order. But here, the court concluded that both of the father’s prior requests were decided on the merits, and he is not claiming a change of circumstances since his last petition.
The court observed that if circumstances do change that would affect the best interests of their son and possibly warrant a modification of the order, the father might have another opportunity to seek a name change. While this was an unusual case, fraught with a series of filings, it is a good example of the complicated legal nature of child custody proceedings. An experienced family law attorney would be able to sort through the applicable laws and procedural requirements to ensure that your case is handled appropriately. Anthony A. Fatemi is a family law attorney with a great deal of experience representing parties throughout the state of Maryland. For help with your family law needs, you are encouraged to contact us at (301) 519-2801, or to submit our online contact form.
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