Nine clients out of 10 pose this as their very first question to me: “How can I limit the other parent’s custody time to as little as possible?” Naturally, the genesis of this question is in the party’s hatred of the other parent for infidelity, perceived cruelty, etc. However, custody law is not designed to serve this objective. More importantly, this type of thought is short-sighted, and here's why.
Growing up in an affluent town, I was witness to a lot of broken families and products of divorced parents. I learned at a very young age that financial comfort is no insulation from marital problems and, in some ways, it breeds them. Instead of doubling down their efforts to compensate for the broken family, parents simply throw money at the problem, which is an exceedingly less effective remedy. Suffice to say, I saw a lot of broken families that, after separation, despite having the means to do right by their children, failed their children miserably.
But there was one family that succeeded, and the child was my friend. As far back as I can remember, the child’s mother and father were divorced, and his mother remarried. Friday nights in the summer, his father would drive up the street in his pickup truck, pick up my friend, his mother, and the stepfather, and the four of them would all go to a minor league baseball game. I’d often see the father and stepfather hanging out together. The father soon remarried, so my friend soon had a stepmother. The four parents became a cohesive family unit. My friend not only lacked a disadvantage as compared to his peers, but had an advantage over them — he had four parents, while everyone else had two, one-and-a-half, one or, let's face it, zero. He is now a physician in California somewhere, with a family of his own, enjoying California sunsets while I sit here in the Northeast and write this in a snowstorm.
Is that a dream situation that isn’t always a viable option? Of course. Are you chasing fool’s gold by thinking you can make that happen every time? Yes. But his family took what could have been a weakness and turned it into a strength. They embraced change and put aside whatever discontents they personally had for the greater good — their child’s welfare. Their reward? Years devoid of strife, cattiness, spite and maliciousness, and a success story they can call their own. Yes, the child was the big winner, but in that circumstance, everybody won.
Believe it or not, Pennsylvania's new Custody Law is engineered to push people toward this very scenario. It has sharpened the focus on the child’s best interest, rewards cooperation, and punishes insolence. For example, some of the factors to be considered under the Custody Law are which parent is more likely to encourage frequent and continuing contact with the other party, whether either of the parties has made efforts to alienate the child from the other parent, and the conflict between the parents (23 Pa.C.S.A. 5328). Consideration of all of these factors heavily favors the cooperative, reasonable parent and all but sink the case of a vexatious and insolent parent.
Case law encourages an expansion of the family unit with stepparents if it will benefit the child. Commonwealth ex rel. Coburn v. Coburn, 558 A.2d 548, 552-553 (Pa. Super. 1989), is an example of a case that confirms the importance — and rights — of a stepparent, holding that a stepparent can become a crucial figure in a child’s life and, in the event of dissolution of the relationship between that stepparent and the natural parent, cannot be denied custody simply due to his or her lack of blood relation. In Coburn, the stepparent had developed a strong parent-child relationship with the child for a period of 10-and-a-half years, and the court held that regardless of the status of the other parent’s custody rights, the child’s best interest dictated that the stepparent remain a strong presence in the child’s life, believing the child would benefit from having an extra loving parent in his life.
In some instances, courts actually view the presence of a stepparent as an attractive characteristic of a parent’s custody claim. In Harner v. Harner, 479 A.2d 583, 589 (Pa. Super. 1984), for example, the court assigned primary custody to the father largely due to the fact that the father had a live-in serious girlfriend and, together, offered a more “cohesive family unit” than the mother. Sometimes, stepparents are even given outright standing to litigate custody matters in their own personal capacity, as opposed to being considerations under the purview of a parent's custody case.
Behind the annoying procedures, the several-hour courthouse waits and debilitating attorney fees, there is in place a new custody system that, if we view it as an opportunity, like my friend’s family did, instead of an obstacle from which we must extort results that serve our own personal vendettas, the world would be filled with more stories like my friend.
Michael J. Salek is a family law attorney at the Miller Law Group in Reading, Pa.