Custody • Best Interest of Child • Statutory Factors • Significance of Stability • Extended Family Structure

Bechtel v. Bechtel, PICS Case No. 14-0526 (C.P. Berks Jan. 19, 2014) Bucci, J. (24 pages).

The court of common pleas granted father primary custody of the parties’ two minor children after considering all the statutory factors, noting the significance of stability in this matter and concluding that the children would benefit from residing with their father as well as their paternal grandparents. Custody order issued.

The parties, parents of two minor children, separated in 2011 and divorced in early 2012. After the separation, father continued to reside with mother and children in the marital residence in Wernersville, Berks County. However, in January 2012, father moved in with the children’s parental grandparents, also in Berks County.

In June 2011, mother moved to Philadelphia, near her extended family. About one year later, she moved to Lehigh County to live with her new partner. In November 2011, the parties reached a shared custody agreement. They continued to follow this shared custody agreement even after mother moved to Philadelphia and then to Lehigh County.

The parties cooperatively co-parented the children with only minor discord. Ultimately, however, they acknowledged that the existing custody arrangement was not in the children’s best interest because there was a lack of continuity and because the 50/50 shared custody arrangement they had agreed to had come to its natural conclusion due to the fact that the children would start school in the fall of 2014.

The court noted that the parties could continue their shared custody arrangement if mother lived closer to father’s residence, which was very close to mother’s place of employment. However, mother chose to live with her partner and his teenage children in Lehigh County. In fact, mother testified that she had no intention of returning to Berks County.

The matter proceeded to trial where the evidence established that father lived in a home owned by the paternal grandparents, who helped with the care of the parties’ two children, on six acres of land in Cumru Township in the Governor Mifflin School District.

Father was employed as general manager of his family’s auto-related business since 1998. He had a large extended family in the Berks County area. In addition to the children’s paternal grandparents, numerous cousins and an aunt live in the area. Father, who resided in Berks County his entire life, had many friends and acquaintances in the area.

Meanwhile, mother resided in Lehigh County with her partner and his two teenage sons, as well as her teenage daughter from a previous marriage, since January 2013. She rented her home on a month-to-month basis and her extended family lived more than an hour away. Mother worked full-time and commuted 45 minutes or more from her current residence to work.

According to father, he should be granted primary custody of the children because he was able to provide a stable, supportive, multi-generational environment in which to raise the children.

Emphasizing the significant role the paternal grandparents played in the children’s lives, the court reasoned that to grant mother primary custody in this case would be destructive to the extended family structure.

While mother testified that she believed the children needed consistency and stability in their education and friendship, she demonstrated little consistency in her own life and little awareness of how her life impacted her teenage daughter. The court granted father primary custody of the children, as it was convinced that the children would benefit immensely from being raised in father’s household.