The New Hampshire Supreme Court issued an opinion on December 4, 2009 in the case of In the Matter of Adam Muchmore and Amy Jaycox, a domestic relations case pertaining to the modification of a parenting plan. In Muchmore & Jaycox, the Court holds that a parenting plan cannot be modified solely based on the best interests of the child, and instead the modification must comport with the statutory scheme laid out in RSA 461-A:11. The decision is disappointing, though not unexpected since the Court simply strictly applied the statute, because it prevents parents from modifying a parenting plan for issues such as a new schedule for the transition into kindergarten. Based on this decision, it will be important for the legislature to take action to allow modifications to a parenting schedule that do not rise to the level of the factors enumerated in the statute.
As background, Adam Muchmore and Amy Jaycox are parents of a minor child born in 2006. They previously resided in Vermont but have each since moved to New Hampshire. A June 2007 Vermont Order granted Amy Lecroix “primary legal and physical parental rights and responsibilities” for the child and allowed the petitioner, Adam Muchmore, regular weekly contact with the child.
In July 2008, Muchmore petitioned the Lebanon Family Division to modify the parenting plan pursuant to RSA 461-A:11, claiming that (1) Jaycox had “repeatedly, intentionally, and without justification” interfered with his parental responsibilities for the child and modification would be in the child’s best interests; (2) that there was clear and convincing evidence that the child’s present environment was harmful to her; and (3) because of the respondent’s conduct, the original allocation of parental rights and responsibilities was not working.
The Lebanon Family Division ruled that Muchmore had failed to meet his burden of proof with regard to each of the reasons for modification he cited, pursuant to 461-A:11; I(b), I(c), and I(d). The court went on to hold, however, that Muchmore’s petition was “sufficient to establish that modifying the parties’ parenting schedule would be in the child’s best interests, and that, pursuant to RSA 461-A:4 (Supp. 2008), proof that modification was in the child’s best interests was all that was required.” Jacox appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that the circumstances under which a parent may seek modification of an existing parenting plans is governed by RSA 461-A:11, and concluded that because Muchmore did not meet his burden under that statute that he is not entitled to a modification. Muchmore argued that even if he failed to meet his burden under 461-A:11, a parent should be allowed to modify a parenting plan when the modification is in the best interests of the child, citing 461-A:4 as support for his assertion. The court held that even though 461-A:4 referenced a “proceeding to establish or modify”, that statute was aimed at the initial construction of a parenting plan while 461-A:11 governed actual modifications.
The Court recognized in its opinion that this result was somewhat regrettable in that it prevented a court from “reassessing the best interests of a child in circumstances where the parents are not interfering and where the child’s current environment is not detrimental,” those circumstances being the majority of cases in practice. However, the Court continues, “RSA 461-A:11, I, does not grant the court discretion to modify an existing plan under any other circumstances” and that it is not up to the court to solve that problem or “to speculate as to how the legislature might choose to do so.” (Emphasis added). Simply put, the court is saying that if the legislature wanted to include a provision for the best interests of the child in 461-A:11 it could have chosen to do so. The Court, in the end, relies on strict statutory interpretation and deference to the public policy decisions of the legislature to assert that their hands were effectively tied.
However, without a provision to allow for some limited modifications based on best interests, a parenting plan that addresses the needs of a toddler may have to do for a tween. The parenting plan form itself encourages parents to view the plan as a work in progress as the children grow and their needs change from infant to teen, but the statute itself does not allow for the changes except in the case that the parents agree or major issues develop as set forth in 461-A:11. It is certainly understandable that the legislature would not include a best interests standard for change in major categories such a primary residential responsibility, as this would just encourage more litigation and allow parents to petition the court for modification whenever they might have the upper hand. However, for routine and holiday schedule changes or other issues that do not call for a change in residential responsibility, there needs to be a mechanism to allow for modification based on best interests so that the court may tweak a parenting plan as the current needs of the child dictate.
Crusco Law Office, PLLC Law Clerk Daniel McLaughlin contributed to this post.