The Dangers of a Vague Custody Order

Recently, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania provided some helpful clarification for custody litigants. The case, R.L.P. v. R.F.M., involved a custody order which was delivered orally by a Judge sitting in Montgomery County. This means that the Judge explained the Custody Order on the record and subsequently let the transcript of the hearing serve as the order. The Superior Court’s opinion clarified that all custody orders have to be delivered in a separate, written order.

This is important for several reasons. Custody Orders are frequently complex, and rightly so. Parties should walk away from a custody trial with no confusion as to how they are going to co-parent their children. In R.L.P. v. R.F.M, the transcript of the trial (which subsequently became the order) was 46 pages long, and included corrections and confusions. The Superior Court noted that when an order is confusing or contradictory, it is significantly harder to enforce.

When a Judge explains the intricacies of a Custody Order in the courtroom, oftentimes it becomes difficult to then enforce that order. In this case, the Superior Court noted that in order to understand the terms of the order, one had to read the transcript several times. A separate, written order gives both parties a tangible document to look to for guidance if a disagreement regarding the children presents itself. A Custody Order delivered orally on the record is just one example of a very dangerous phenomenon in family law: vague orders.

A good custody order will account for how parties navigate their children’s schedules. Especially in a time when shared custody is becoming more of an assumption by the courts, parties need certainty in how this is to come about. The Order should address how the children are exchanged: who is responsible for transportation? Where are they being dropped off? A holiday schedule should be in place and it should include considerations like birthdays, mother’s/father’s day, etc.

The order should also address the issue of communication. How are the parties going to speak together about the children? If there is a history of contention and argument, it may be best that all discussions take place through text or email to establish a paper-trail.

Surprisingly, some parties allow a simple temporary Custody Order to remain in place for years, allowing the party with primary custody to dictate the terms of every aspect of the children’s schedule. A temporary order will never be thorough or specific enough to adequately address all the issues that may arise in a custody battle, yet some litigants are willing to leave it in place just to avoid coming back to court.

Cases such as R.L.P. v. R.F.M. come as a reminder for custody litigants to be thorough during negotiations and at trial, making sure you do not walk away with any confusion regarding how the custody schedule is going to work. Ambiguities in a custody schedule provide parents unnecessary opportunities to argue. Ultimately, this leads to the parents putting their own (understandable) desire to be with the children above the actual best interests of the children. Therefore, litigants should be careful that the Order they receive is thorough enough to ensure that they’re able to avoid being coming back to court in another two months.