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Review of Child Custody Decisions on Appeal

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There is a deferential standard of review for the trial court's findings of fact on appeal.  This makes it difficult to win on appeal.

By Attorney Jeffrey B. Engle, Child Custody Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

I have sometimes run into a situation where my client was unhappy with the outcome at a custody trial and desired to appeal the matter.  An appeal of any trial court (court of common pleas) decision on a custody matter will be heard in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.  It is a Court of review.  Not one that hears the matter anew.  This means, there will be no further proceedings on the matter, testimony, exhibits, just appeal on improper legal determinations or an abuse of discretion when it comes to the facts.

What's An Abuse of Discretion?

In a recent appellate decision by the Superior Court, it stated as follows:

In reviewing a custody order, our scope is of the broadest type and our standard is abuse of discretion. We must accept findings of the trial court that are supported by competent evidence of record, as our role does not include making independent factual determinations. In addition, with regard to issues of credibility and weight of the evidence, we must defer to the presiding trial judge who viewed and assessed the witnesses first-hand. However, we are not bound by the trial court's deductions or inferences from its factual findings. Ultimately, the test is whether the trial court's conclusions are unreasonable as shown by the evidence of record. We may reject the conclusions of the trial court only if they involve an error of law, or are unreasonable in light of the sustainable findings of the trial court.

C.R.F., 45 A.3d at 443 (citation omitted). We have stated:

the discretion that a trial court employs in custody matters should be accorded the utmost respect, given the special nature of the proceeding and the lasting impact the result will have on the lives of the parties concerned. Indeed, the knowledge gained by a trial court in observing witnesses in a custody proceeding cannot adequately be imparted to an appellate court by a printed record.

A.H., Appellee v. C.M., Appellant, 58 A.3d 823 (Superior Court of Pennsylvania Dec. 18, 2012).

What's the Bottom Line?

It's may be difficult to determine if the trial court abused its discretion.  However, more likely than not, an appeal on an abuse of discretion standard is not likely to succeed.  The important thing to realize and keep in mind about child custody is that it is forever changing.  Gone are the days when the courts were limited on child custody modification proceedings where there was a "substantial change."  Now, courts may review, at the request of a party, the child custody arrangement at any time.  However, usually one should consider filing for a modification of custody only if there has been something that has changed, such as work schedules, home life or location, child abuse, drug/alcohol abuse or perhaps even the child's preferences.

If you have questions or concerns regarding child custody and modification or an appeal,  contact an experienced child custody attorney at Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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