The Rhode Island Divorce Coach speaks - Do Legal Custody Agreements get Rubber Stamped by RI Family Court Judges??
Many people wonder when their Rhode Island Divorce or Family Law case comes before the court if the court will just approve the decision(s) they as parents may have reached regarding the legal custody of their minor child(ren).
You can stop wondering Rhode Island litigants. The truth is that rubber stamping by the court does not always happen. Yet why is that? Why can a judge trump an agreement you've made with your spouse about the well-being of your child.
If you've ever watched any version of Star Trek or any of it's newer counterparts then you will understand what I am about to say here. Regardless of whether you have a Rhode Island divorce or a child custody dispute in the Rhode Island family courts, the Judges have a "prime directive" above all else that needs to be adhered to and which they do a pretty good job identifying. It is this... protect the best interests of the minor child(ren) whatever the case may be. So don't expect to simply make an agreement as parents and expect that the court will accept it to. The court does not have to accept your agreement if for any reason the judge has any reason to believe that one or the other or you may not be acting in the child(ren)'s best interests.
This veto of Rhode Island parents' agreements doesn't happen "often" but it does happen. Judge's know that sometimes that a parent may be under duress by the other parent or that either parent may agree to terms that are less than beneficial to the minor child for the sake of "not rocking the boat" or preserving their relationship with the minor child over what is doing what is best for him or her. In instances such as these a Judge may use his or her authority and/or discretion to step in and do what is truly best for the minor child or in the very least require an explanation from each parent why they reached the decision they did and how they see it to be in the best interests of the minor child(ren)
So, what might trigger a Rhode Island Family Court Judge to exercise that veto authority?
Imagine that you are a judge. You have an agreement between two parents before you and they agree to share joint legal custody. Yet the judge already knows from earlier statements that the father has a criminal record. Upon inquiry the RI Family Court judge finds out that the father's criminal record is only a few years old, that it goes back 10 years and that it contains numerous arrests for cocaine sales to minors as well as possession of cocaine. No matter how good a mother thinks that father may be, that judge's common sense is at work. Clearly this man has broken the law not once but several times. These offenses are fairly recent and they relate not only to drugs but to sales to minors.
A judge could easily draw the conclusion that this Rhode island Father has a problem making good decisions for his own life. A Rhode Island Family Court judge might be of the opinion that this father isn't a good role model and because his own choices are poor for his own life that he should not have even 1/2 of the say in major/important decisions for a minor child. Therefore, that Family Court Judge might intervene to protect the child and deny the approval of the agreement based upon the circumstances because the court has it's most important role in protecting the children within our state and subject to our family court system.
In a nut shell, the general standard that I have always applied and it seems to have rung true with the Rhode Island Family Court justices thus far is this, "If a parent demonstrates that he or she has not or does not make appropriate decisions regarding their own life, then the court will seriously question whether such a parent should be given the continued right to make important decisions for a minor child who may not know any better and is relying upon the judgment of that parent."
Will the Family court rubber stamp a legal custody agreement between two parents. The answer is, "Not Always!" It should never be presumed that the court will do so. The parents should know each other's background from a decision making standpoint. If either parent would question the other's decisions for their own lives in the slightest, then concern should be given to whether the court will approve the agreement
Keep in mind, if you are a parent with a good track record of making good decisions for yourself and suddenly you agree to joint legal custody when you know the other parent is not suitably fit to make decisions for their own life and therefore for a minor child as well, then you have just caused your own credibility and your actual concern for your child's best interests as an issue before the court. You have literally shot your own credibility out the window. It's not a good position to be in. Now the court may wonder if either or you are to be trusted. In extreme cases, a judge might even pull the child from your placement and give temporary placement of your child to the State of Rhode Island Division of Youth and Children giving you no say at all and throwing your child into a world in which he or she is confused, has lost his or her stability and may now suffer permanent trauma all because you tried to enter into an agreement that the Family Court Judge believes you knew or should have known was not a good idea.
Don't count on a rubber stamp from the court on your agreement no matter what any Rhode Island divorce or family law attorney tells you. Even rubber stamps need re-inking and sometimes they just don't have that ink when your lawyer hopes they do. A good attorney will give you a good evaluation right at the outset and tell you what to expect even if it means you won't be hiring him or her. Don't just go with the first attorney who tells you what you want to hear.
Christopher A. Pearsall, Attorney-at-Law
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