Sharples v. Sharples, decided by a panel of the Superior Court on August 1, 2023 presents just about every problem modern custody cases can encompass. And, after the decision issued today, the parties are going back for more.
The subject child was 10 when her Mother initiated the action in 2018. In 2019 Father’s parents got in the case and in 2022 there was a three day trial. There is conflict between mother and daughter and a bevy of experts to opine on this topic. In the meantime, Father and his parents appealed from an order which is said to have given father 98% of the available custodial time while counselors try to figure out why daughter and mom can’t get along.
Among the issues considered in this non-precedential panel decision was whether courts have authority to regulate what parents and grandparents give or spend on their kids. We are not seeing the precise spending cap language the trial court sought to impose (the court refers to $100) but the opinion makes clear that father and his parents are clearly indulgent with what is today their now 15 year old offspring. The Trial Court found that the teen was overindulged in a material sense. Unfortunately, a lot of this evidence arose from an in camera interview of the child.
Father’s appeal was premised on the idea that spending caps were unmanageable. The grandparents took the due process approach contending that they had no notice that this remedy would be employed as it was not requested. Curiously, the grandparents cite Troxel v. Granville, a U.S. Supreme Court case from 2000, intended to protect parental rights from encroachment by grandparents. 530 U.S. 57. They also contended the court lacked authority to regulate their spending and that the atempt was an abuse of discretion.
Mother’s position was premised on her perception that any decline of a material request from the child was answered with father’s side of the family happily indulging that request. The grandfather is reported to have told the evaluator that he and his wife decide what to do in life based on their granddaughter. The grandmother acknowledged that the child sought their undivided attention.
Noting the language in Colonna v. Colonna, which referenced how children will manipulate parents to secure what they perceive as needs, the trial court tried to impose expense limits. 855 A.2d 648. 651 n.5 (Pa. 2004).
While not deciding the substance of the spending, the Superior Court reversed the decision indicating that parties deserve some form of notice if spending limitations are in the cards. Ironically, Mother had not sought this remedy. The Court thought it necessary perhaps to try to remedy what seemed a disparity in lifestyle between father’s side of the family and mom. Mother’s testimony expressed resignation over the fact that she could or would not try to keep up with her ex and former in-laws. The Superior Court also noted that while the child seems to clearly understand that she is indulged, no testimony put any dollar or other values on the scope of that indulgence. The case was remanded to develop that record.
‘Tis a quandry. Our Troxell case from 2000 was built on an evolving law of that time holding that courts are not substitutes for parents when it comes to decision making. Cases in the past couple years from the U.S. Supreme Court seem to denigrate the right to privacy- a concept largely unknown at the time the Constitution was framed in 1789. As practicing attorneys, we have all seen the case where one parent suggests the child look at a used Volkswagen only to see the other parent deliver the keys to a new Audi A4 as a sweet 16 gift. But, father does have a point about the daily management of these kinds of regulations. Is the Special Edition package where the Audi has hand-stitched seats something the court should weigh in on? Are these private matters or subject to judicial regulation? In this case the grandparents sought to intervene as parties, so they were within the court’s regulatory grasp. But suppose one parent is forbidden to transport the child in first class- but grandma and gramps come across with a charter as a gift? Does this mean that custody pretrial statements may now require submission of budgets where income disparity is proffered as an issue creating parent child conflict? And lastly, what’s a court to do when one party offers that there will be no vacation with child this year because the lawyers took all the money?