On August 21, 2008, the New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion on In the Matter of Mary Beth Georgakilas and George Georgakilas holding that an approximately equal parenting schedule still entitles one parent to a “primary physical custody” designation.
The facts of the case are as follows: the parties divorced in 2006 and entered into a permanent stipulation and a parenting plan regarding their son. The parties share joint decision making responsibility (formerly referred to as joint legal custody). The parties also agreed that their parenting time was for approximately equal time and George would have liberal and generous parenting time whenever he was not flying as a commercial airline pilot. In addition, the plan stipulated that for school purposes only, the child’s legal residence was his mother’s home.
When the divorce was finalized, the certificate of divorce entered by the court stated that Mary Beth and George had joint legal custody but that Mary Beth had physical custody. George moved to modify the certificate to reflect that the parties had joint physical custody. The trial court denied George’s motion because they interpreted the parenting plan to grant primary residential responsibility to Mary Beth. That because the plan did not state that they shared or had joint residential responsibility, the certificate of divorce correctly complied with the parenting plan and would not be revised. George appealed the ruling to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court considered the intent of the parties as expressed in their stipulation when deciding this case. Under the plain meaning of the stipulation the parties were to have “equal or approximately equal” residential responsibility of their son. However, the court stated that as a matter of law “approximately equal” is not enough to confer custodial parent status as defined by the statute.
RSA 461-A:20 states that: a “custodial parent” is “a parent with 50% or more of the residential responsibility” and a “non-custodial parent” is “a parent with less than 50% of the residential responsibility”. The court determined that a parent with 49% of the residential responsibility is a non-custodial parent by definition.
Therefore, because Mary Beth and George chose to use “approximately equal” to describe their responsibilities and George’s absences from New Hampshire due to his job, the court concluded that the trial court did not err when it declined to change certificate of divorce. Unless the parties had agreed to have 50% of the residential responsibility pursuant to 461-A:20, only one of them could be the primary residentially responsible parent.
This case boils down to the labels we place upon parenting schedules, whether they be “custody”, “residential responsibility” or “routine schedules.” Often, for a parent the label is very important and that parent wants “sole physical custody” or “joint residential responsibility.” However, what really matters is the schedule itself. Instead of questioning what kind of label has been placed upon the schedule, a parent should focus on whether the schedule allows them ample parenting time and whether the schedule is the most beneficial for their children.
Crusco Law Office law clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this blog post.