Can A Court Consider “Prospective” Future Events When Making A Child Custody Order?
The legal standard that Florida courts must apply when deciding questions of child custody and visitation is the “best interests of the child.” This applies not only to the initial determination of these issues, but also any subsequent modifications. For instance, if the custodial parent wishes to relocate the child to a new home outside of the state, a judge must make a new determination as to whether such an act is in the child’s best interest at that time.
Florida Appeals Court: Judges May Not Use “Crystal Ball” to Speculate on Father’s Future Compliance with Parenting Plan
The Florida Supreme Court has cautioned that judges are not allowed to make a “prospective-based” analysis of a child’s best interests. In a 2010 decision, Arthur v. Arthur, the Court reversed a custody order that authorized a mother to relocate with her child 20 months after the date of the order. The Supreme Court said the trial judge could not “prophetically determine whether future relocation is in the best interests of a child.”
Florida courts have subsequently struggled to define the scope of the Arthur decision. Just recently, the Florida Second District Court of Appeals reversed a parenting plan that imposed future conditions on a father’s ability to exercise unsupervised visitation rights. The family court in this case, Natali v. Natali, determined that it was in the child’s immediate best interest for the father to only have supervised visitation rights. But if the father met two conditions–3 months of unsupervised visits and completion of a parenting courts–he would automatically transition to unsupervised visitation rights.
The Second District said the family court’s issue here suffered from the same “crystal ball” problem suggested by the Arthur decision–it approves a parenting plan that “automatically progresses based on the satisfaction of multiple predetermined but contingent future events.” While some Florida courts–notably the Fourth District Court of Appeal–have said that Arthur only applies to prospective orders approving relocation of a child, the First, Second, and Fifth Districts have elected to read the prohibition against prospective-based analysis more broadly.
Here, the Second District said it was wrong for the trial judge to allow the father an automatic transition to unsupervised visitation. Instead, the father would remain on supervised visitation, but he could later petition the court to make specific findings that unsupervised visitation would be in the child’s best interests.
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One judge wrote separately in the Natali case to point out that any determination regarding a child’s best interests “entails an element of prediction.” Indeed, the whole point of having the court establish a parenting plan “is to govern future conduct” of the parties. This judge suggested that “it may be appropriate” in some cases for a family court to “fashion a ‘staged’ parenting plan” like the one presented in this case “that includes limited changes or alterations over the course of time based upon the occurrence of those future events.”
As you can see, there are a number of complex legal issues involved when a court is asked to rule on a child custody dispute. That is why you need to work with an experienced Tampa family law attorney. Contact the Faulkner Law Group, PLLC, today to schedule a consultation.