Collaborative Parenting Plans: Judges Must Safeguard Children

Collaborative Parenting Plans: Judges Must Safeguard Children. Two kids pillow fighting with feathers flying. Photo by Allen Taylor (Unsplash)

When considering parents’ agreements, judges must safeguard children. A court isn’t bound by parents’ agreements regarding child support, custody, or visitation. Feliciano v. Feliciano, 674 So. 2d 937 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996)see also Yitzhari v. Yitzhari, 906 So. 2d 1250, 1257 n. 4 (Fla. 3d DCA 2005).

A Court’s Responsibility to the Child

Florida family law judges have a heavy responsibility to safeguard children. In carrying out this responsibility, they must ensure purported agreements or arrangements between parents don’t shortchange their child. A court “is not bound by an agreement of parents regarding child support, custody, or visitation.” See Puglisi v. Puglisi, 135 So. 3d 1146 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014) (citations omitted). Rather, the “best interests” of the child supersede “any agreement between the parents and must be independently determined by the trial court.” Id.

Likewise, in Jones v. Jones, 674 So. 2d 770 (Fla. 5th DCA 1996), the court held:

“The best interests of the children are to govern the custody decision, regardless of any stipulation between the parties.” A trial judge, who must safeguard a child’s best interests, may set an agreement aside on child support, custody, and visitation if the agreement is not in the best interest of the child.

“It is undisputed, and should be indisputable, that a trial court’s responsibility to the child cannot be abdicated to any parent, any expert. That heavy responsibility mandates that a court is not bound by any agreement between parents.”

Dorsett v. Dorsett, 902 So. 2d 947, 951 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (quoting Lane v. Lane, 599 So. 2d 218, 219 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992))

The court must guard against a parent’s bargaining away a child’s rights for reasons unrelated to the child’s best interests. See Griffith v. Griffith, 860 So. 2d 1069 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003); Cappola v. Cappola, 280 So. 3d 102 (Fla. 4th DCA 2019).

As Judges Safeguard Children, Do the Child’s Best Interests Support Enforcing the Parents’ Agreement?

These principles arose in Antunes v. De Oliveira, 341 So. 3d 420 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022). Mom and dad settled their divorce. They agreed, if either them wanted to take their child out of the United States, that parent would notify the other in writing at least seven days before the trip. Failure to comply would cost the parent $10,000, to be paid to the other parent. Further, they agreed the offending parent would forfeit the right to travel internationally with the minor child until the child became an adult.

Mom took the child to Ireland and didn’t tell dad until the child returned. He moved to enforce the agreement. The appellate court said the trial court should’ve enforced the parents’ agreement on the $10,000.

But, in contrast, the appellate court reaffirmed judges must safeguard children. Accordingly, the court upheld the trial judge’s refusal to enforce the ban on future international travel. Competent substantial evidence the agreed prohibition on wasn’t in the child’s best interests supported this decision.

Collaborative Parenting Plans: Judges Must Safeguard Children. 4 boys playing ball on green grass. Photo by Robert Collins (Unsplash)

Judges Must Safeguard Children, But Have No Free Hand to Disregard Parents’ Wishes

Judges must safeguard children. So parents’ agreements affecting a child’s rights aren’t binding on a family judge. Feliciano v. Feliciano, 674 So. 2d 937 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996). Still, the judge has no free hand to disregard their wishes. Sedell v. Sedell, 100 So. 2d 639 (Fla. 1st DCA 1958). 

A court should respect and uphold parents’ agreed parenting plans unless a valid reason related to (1) the best interest of the child or (2) a finding that parents’ agreements were involuntary or the product of fraud justifies not respecting and upholding the parents’ agreements. 

See Griffith v. Griffith, 860 So. 2d 1069, 1072 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003)(insufficient evidence supported trial judge’s disdaining parents’ mediation agreement resolving alimony, child support, and custody, conducting post-mediation hearings to determine if the agreement was in the children’s best interest, and, concluding the agreement wasn’t in the children’s best interest, reducing doctor-mom’s agreed-on child support obligation); Williams v. Sapp, 255 So. 3d 912 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018)(With no notice or opportunity for mom to be heard, a trial judge improperly modified parents’ mediation agreement for mom to have sole parental responsibility; the trial court must either approve the parents’ agreement as they negotiated it or, if the court is unable or unwilling to do so, must conduct a properly noticed evidentiary hearing).

Collaborating parents may wish to adopt Parenting Plan provisions that cover anticipated future events. But the parents must respect that judges must safeguard children whom the provisions would affect. That’s why it makes sense to enlist court review of the children’s best interests when anticipated future events occur.

Questions About Collaborative Parenting Plans?

For questions about opportunities in your Florida Collaborative Divorce to anticipate events reasonably certain to occur and providing for them in your parenting plan, contact Michael P. Sampson of Sampson Collaborative Law.

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