Shared Parental Responsibility Arrangement Meant Father Couldn’t Have Ultimate Decision Making Authority in All Areas

In many child custody and visitation cases, the parents often receive shared parental responsibility. When they do, there are certain restrictions that exist regarding how decision making must be structured. In one recent case, the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed a trial court order because the parents had shared parental responsibility but the court order also purported to give the father ultimate decision making power in situations where the parents could not agree.

The dispute in this case centered on the welfare of three children whose parents had divorced. In the parents’ original marital settlement agreement, the parents agreed to have equal timesharing and that everyone would live in Indian River County.

Eventually, the mother moved to California. This led to a new round of litigation to modify the timesharing schedule. At the end of this process, the new timesharing schedule gave the mother 59 overnights per year, while the father had 306. The court, as part of this ruling, also declared that, if the parents could not come to an agreement on any major issues regarding the children’s welfare, then the father would have the ultimate say-so.

The mother appealed the trial court’s ruling and achieved a degree of success. The element of the trial court’s decision that the appeals court reversed related to decision making authority. Previous rulings from the 4th Circuit had made it clear that giving one parent blanket “ultimate decision making authority” was not consistent with an arrangement that truly gives both parents shared parental responsibility.

The law does, however, allow a trial judge to give one parent ultimate decision making authority as long as it is not blanket authority. The Florida Statutes expressly state that a court is allowed to “consider the expressed desires of the parents” and can give a parent ultimate authority in a particular area, including creating an order that gives each parent ultimate authority in various topics. According to the statute, these areas “may include education, health care, and any other responsibilities that the court finds unique to a particular family.”

The key is that the order must spell out what specific areas are subject to the grant of ultimate decision making authority. If the grant of ultimate authority is specific in the court’s order (or in the parents’ agreement), then the law allows it and it is enforceable.

There are, however, additional restrictions the law imposes, such as forbidding orders that take the decision making authority away from parents and placing it in the hands of the minor child. In one case from Southwest Florida, the courts overturned an order that allowed a child to opt out of participating in extracurricular sports simply by expressing his preference not to play.

Of course, a preferable outcome in many cases may be for the parents to agree, rather than litigate. Agreed-upon decision making arrangements, like litigated ones, have certain lines that generally can’t be crossed. One of these concerns religion. A South Florida case from last year, which involved a mom who had practiced Reform Judaism during her marriage but began practicing Orthodox Judaism after the divorce, expressly stated that, “even if the parties agreed to raise the children in a particular religion, most legal authority is against enforcement of such agreements.”

When it comes to your child custody and parenting plan case, you need counsel working on your behalf who understands this area of the law. The experienced South Florida family law team at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. has been helping families work out parenting plans, including issues of parental responsibility and decision making authority, for years. For reliable advice and zealous representation, contact our team online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

Giving Florida Mom ‘Ultimate’ Decision-Making Authority Violated the Rule in Favor of Shared Parental Responsibility, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 28, 2016

Shared Parental Responsibility Under Florida Law and Your Child’s Extracurricular Activities, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 25, 2016