On this appeal, a noncustodial parent strenuously argues that his right to meaningful visitation with his children will be destroyed by his former wife's efforts to accommodate an entirely unnecessary career choice by her new husband. The wife contends that her actions were a natural and proper concomitant of her remarriage and that her former husband's visitation right will be preserved in its essential respects. As with all cases involving visitation, we must resolve the dispute, not solely out of consideration of the
The parties were married in 1965 and produced three children, now 15, 13 and 9 years of age. In 1976 Frances Daghir, the wife, obtained a judgment of divorce. The judgment, inter alia, awarded her custody of the children, with visitation to the husband, Khalil Daghir, every Sunday from noon to 7:00 P.M. and two weeks in the summer. Additionally, Khalil was ordered to pay alimony and child support.
There is no dispute over the fact that Khalil fulfilled his support obligations and took full advantage of the visitation rights granted to him. There is also no question that he was and remains a loving and devoted father whose visits were warmly welcomed by his children.
Sometime after the divorce, Frances established a relationship with one Joseph Coughlin, a component engineer who had been employed by IBM in that capacity for some 27 years. He worked at the same Mid-Hudson Valley facility where Khalil was employed as a physicist. In November, 1980 Coughlin was approached by IBM about the possibility of a two-year assignment in France. He flew to France to assess the opportunity and, upon his return on December 4, 1980, he accepted the assignment.
Some three weeks later, on December 27, 1980, Frances and Coughlin were married and prepared to move to France with the Daghir children. For reasons of her own, however, Frances never saw fit to inform Khalil of the impending move. Instead, he learned about it through the IBM "grapevine" and immediately brought an order to show cause enjoining the move and seeking, inter alia, to modify the judgment of divorce to prohibit Frances from removing the children from the country without his written consent. In the alternative, he asked that, if Frances insisted on moving to France, custody be transferred to him for the period of her absence.
A hearing was held on the application. The sole witness to appear was James J. Heenan, Coughlin's immediate superior and career manager at IBM. Heedan testified that Coughlin's acceptance of the assignment would have no
According to Heenan, the assignment was scheduled to terminate after two years, but Coughlin could ask for an extension. Moreover, there was no guarantee that, upon completion of the assignment, Coughlin would be reassigned to the Mid-Hudson Valley facility. That, according to Heenan, would depend upon business conditions at the time.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the court denied Khalil's motion and permitted Frances to take the children to France. The court attempted to alleviate the consequent interruption of contact between Khalil and his children by providing for additional visitation and a reduction in support payments. Summer visitation was enlarged to a total of 30 days, inclusive of time for travel for which Frances would bear the expense. The reduction in support payments by some $4,000 annually would, in the court's view, permit Khalil to travel to France to see the children, and it was ordered that he have such visitation in France as the parties may agree upon, but in no event less than one week to coincide with the children's school vacations.
Khalil now appeals from this determination. We reverse.
Disputes involving custody and visitation are acknowledged to be among the most difficult the courts are called upon to resolve, for they so deeply affect the lives of children and the parents who love them. (See Matter of Gloria S. v Richard B., 80 A.D.2d 72, 78-79 [MANGANO, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part].) Several fundamental principles have emerged to guide the courts in deciding such cases. It is the firmly established policy of this State, for example, that, wherever possible, the best interests of a child lie in his being nurtured and guided by both of his natural parents. (See Weiss v Weiss, 52 N.Y.2d 170.) Thus, a divorced, noncustodial parent and his children jointly enjoy a natural right of visitation. (See Matter of Denberg v Denberg, 34 Misc.2d 980, 985-986
That is not to suggest, of course, that a custodial parent must scrupulously avoid all conduct which may in any way affect, no matter how slightly, the other parent's right of visitation. Custodial parents have rights as well. Among them is the right to remarry, and we recognize that the obligations of a new marriage may legitimately, if rarely, require even "a dramatic change of locale." (Weiss v Weiss, supra, p 177.) The decision to bear children, however, entails serious obligations and among them is the duty to protect the child's relationship with both parents even in the event of a divorce. Hence, a custodial parent may be properly called upon to make certain sacrifices to ensure the right of the child to the benefits of visitation with the non-custodial
The Family Court's order would, in all likelihood, separate a loving and devoted father from his children for two consecutive periods of one year each. It is pure speculation to suggest that the reduction in child support payments ordered by the court will actually enable Khalil to visit his children in France during the year, for travel abroad is not exclusively dependent upon financial considerations. Thus, from summer to summer, Khalil would likely be deprived of personal contact with his children, and they in turn would lose his guiding hand and influence in their lives.
It is argued, however, that the visitation provided for in the order increases the total period of time which Khalil will be permitted to spend with the children. Again, visitation in France must be deemed speculative at best. And even if the 30-day summer visitation ordered by the court exceeds in actual number of hours the visitation previously enjoyed, that fact is of relatively small significance. Although the total number of visitation days per year is an important consideration, far more significant is the frequency and regularity of the visitation itself. (Weiss v Weiss, supra.)
Frances contends that the move to France will provide the children with "a unique learning experience" and therefore is in their best interest. We agree that an opportunity to experience life in a foreign country may prove worthwhile and beneficial for a child. Nevertheless, the benefits of such an experience are far outweighed by those which flow from frequent and regular contact with the child's loving and responsible natural parent. Moreover, it is misleading to term the move temporary in the context of this case. Two years is a long time in the life of a child. Many significant and formative events occur in a period of such length, and much parental guidance is necessary. And, in any event, there is no guarantee here that, at the end of the two years, the children will be returned to the area in which Khalil lives and works.
On balance, therefore, we conclude that the Family Court's determination unreasonably and unjustifiably interferes with Khalil's right to meaningful visitation and is contrary to the children's essential best interests. Because moving the children to France is not required by any compelling financial, educational, employment or health considerations, and because it would significantly curtail the frequency, and therefore the quality, of what was regular and welcomed visitation, the order appealed from should be reversed. (See Matter of Whittemore v Whittemore, 202 Misc. 175.) Khalil's motion should be granted insofar as it seeks to modify the divorce judgment by adding a provision prohibiting the removal of the children from New York State for purposes of residing elsewhere, without his written consent, and insofar as it seeks a temporary transfer of custody, for so long as Frances shall reside outside of New York State.
The order appealed from is fair and reasonable, and attempts a Solomonic solution to the instant dispute. It represents humane sensitivity to the competing interests and concerns of the parties. It abrogates no one's rights, but alters their implementation so as to realistically respond to the changing needs of all. And, most importantly, it appears singularly guided by a desire to ensure the best interests of the children by preserving the stability of their relationship with their custodial parent, by maintaining significant contact between them and their noncustodial parent, and by allowing them to take advantage
It must be emphasized that the custodial parent intended to move her family's home temporarily to France because her present husband had made a career choice necessitating such a move. It may be true that this career choice was not dictated by any financial or promotional considerations. Nevertheless, the choice was made. The real question, then, is whether the wife must now choose not to accompany her husband in his temporary relocation in order to retain the custody of her children and maintain her former husband's weekly visitation rights, or relinquish custody to the latter in order to fulfill her present marital obligations. This is an impossible choice, which should be avoided, if there can be a reasonable accommodation of the parties' rights. I am convinced that the Family Court's carefully fashioned order effected such an accommodation.
It should also be emphasized that the majority has decided to transfer custody for so long as the mother shall reside outside of New York State. In other words, it would transfer custody from the mother, who has always had custody of the children, to the father, who was denied custody by a judgment of divorce. In that judgment the Supreme Court, Dutchess County, found that the mother had provided a good home for the children during the period the parties were separated, and that the father was unable adequately to care for the children while working full time and that there was some basis to believe that, if the father had been granted custody of the children, they would have been removed to Lebanon on a permanent basis. Custody is now being transferred by this court upon a record that does not adequately explore the crucial issue of the father's present ability to maintain the care and custody of the children. Such a change of custody should only be ordered after a thorough fact finding on all issues relevant to the children's best interests and based upon the best available evidence. This record does not afford our court a fact finding of this nature upon which to premise an order for a change of custody.
Accordingly, I dissent and vote to affirm.
Order of the Family Court, Dutchess County, dated March 9, 1981, reversed, on the law, without costs or disbursements, and the defendant's motion granted to the extent of modifying the judgment of divorce by adding provisions thereto prohibiting the removal of the parties' children from New York State, for purposes of residing elsewhere, without defendant's written consent and granting temporary custody of the children to the defendant for so long as the plaintiff shall reside outside of New York State.