Pennington V. Marcum, Ky S. Ct., Modification Of Custody, Timesharing/Visitation, Primary Residence

DATE RENDERED: 10/23/2008

In this relocation case, SC addressed the nature of child custody, the effects of relocations, and when and how motions relating to relocation after a custody award should be brought.

Custody Defined
SC recognized that, as a consequence of Kentucky’s no fault divorce scheme, joint custody has emerged as Kentucky’s most prevalent custodial arrangement. Joint custody gives both parents full responsibility for and authority over the children at all times, and the parents have a flexible division of physical custody. Shared custody is a subset of joint custody in which the parents’ legal custody might be delineated by court order, parenting time may be scheduled with specificity, and one parent may be designated the “primary residential parent,” or the parent who provides the child’s primary home. Split custody refers to an arrangement in which each parent has sole custody of the child while the child is in his/her care.

Modification of Custody or Visitation on Parental Relocation
The effect of relocation must be viewed either pre- or post-decree. Any orders prior to entry of a decree are temporary orders and may be entered pursuant to KRS 403.280 for custody and KRS 403.320 for time-sharing, and may be modified at any time it is in the child’s best interests to do so. Any decisions made in the decree as to custody are made pursuant to KRS 403.270.
If a decree has been entered, and a relocation motion is filed, the motion is for modification of either custody or timesharing/visitation. If the parent is seeking a change of custody, then KRS 403.340 governs. If the motion requests modification of the timesharing schedule, then KRS 403.320 either applies directly or may be construed to do so. The distinction between modifications for custody versus modifications of timesharing is important, because the court must apply a stricter standard (endangerment to the child) for modifications of custody sought within two years of a prior custody determination. Thus, an important question to be resolved is whether a custodian’s relocation with the child changes the inherent nature of the custody the parties have or merely affects timesharing/visitation. SC held that “Custody is either sole or joint (or the subsets of each) and to modify it is to change it from one to the other. On the other hand, changing how much time a child spends with each parent does not change the legal nature of the custody ordered in the decree. This is true whether the parent has sole or joint custody: decision-making is either vested in one parent or both, and how often the child’s physical residence changes or the amount of time spent with each parent does not change this.” SC recognized that this concept may be too legalistic in a reality-based world, as many parents incorrectly designate “primary residential parent” in their agreements to address the physical possession of the child.
In looking at the most recent SC relocation case, Fenwick v. Fenwick, SC found that much of that opinion must be disregarded as the wrong statute was applied—as the issue was pre-decree, KRS 403.270 (best interests of child) should have been the standard applied, but SC instead focused on who was primary residential parent. Even if the case had been post-decree, the focus should not have been on who provided the primary residence, but on whether an actual change in custody was sought. A parent opposed to relocation but not seeking a change of joint custody should be making a motion for modification of timesharing. “While there is no statute that specifically addresses modification of time-sharing in a joint custody setting, it is reasonable to infer that modifying it does not alter the nature of joint custody. Also, since the nature of the custody does not change, TC is not bound by the statutory requirements that must be met for a change of custody, but can modify timesharing based on best interests of the child as is done in modifying visitation. Looking at Fenwick, SC noted that a modification motion due to relocation by a parent opposed to relocation that does not want a change of custody should probably be a motion for change of primary residential parent, which is a component of timesharing, not custody. This motion would be sought under the standard of KRS 403.320.
The parent seeking modification has the burden of bringing the motion before the court. “A residential parent who wishes only to change the timesharing due to his relocating with the child may bring the motion to modify timesharing under KRS 403.320. If that parent believes the relocation will make a joint custody arrangement unworkable, then the motion should be made for a change of custody from joint to sole under KRS 403.340. The other parent could also file a motion upon learning of the intent to relocate for modification of timesharing, including a requested change of designation of primary residential parent, or he could file a motion for a change of custody. Both parents could file motions requesting modification if their wishes differ.

Application to Parties
Though TC may not have used the correct terminology, TC appropriately modified timesharing schedule by allowing relocation. No abuse of discretion. CA affirmed.

Dissent by Cunningham
Majority opinion failed to provide guidance to lower courts as to standards to apply when one parent relocates. Advocated lower courts to evaluate (11) factors proposed by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers’ Model Relocation Act when considering the best interests of child in relocation matters. “When a custodial parent decides to move a great distance, the non-custodial parent may no longer be deeply involved in the child’s life. The custodial parent has a choice—the choice not to move. The non-custodial parent has no choice and is not only helpless, but essentially stripped of his or her child. The child is also at the mercy of the custodial parent’s choice."

Dissent by Venters
“[TC] took the unilateral relocation of the child as a fait accompli without adequate consideration of impact of the relocation on the child and on the child’s other family relationships. Doing so… encourages such unannounced relocations when [SC] should adopt, or at least promote, a policy that requires the joint custodians to discuss the relocation before it occurs.”
Digested by Michelle Eisenmenger Mapes, Diana L. Skaggs + Associates