The issue in this appeal is whether a circuit court has jurisdiction to resolve a child custody dispute between unmarried parents when the parents are living together. In Ricketts v. Ricketts, 393 Md. 479, 501, 903 A.2d 857 (2006), the Court of Appeals held that a court had such jurisdiction in a divorce action even if the parents were sharing the same household and even if the court declined to grant a divorce. We will extend the holding of Ricketts to cases where the parents are unmarried and reverse a judgment of the Circuit Court for Cecil County.
James Ricky Holbrook and Hannah Newell are the biological parents of K., a minor child. In January 2015, the circuit court entered a consent order which, in addition to other relief, awarded the parties joint custody of K. In September 2015, Mr. Holbrook filed a motion to modify the custody provisions of the earlier order. While that motion was pending, Mr. Holbrook filed an ex parte request for custody, in which he asserted that Ms. Newell was unable to care for K., and that K. had been residing exclusively with him for several months because Ms. Newell did not have a fixed address. The circuit court held a hearing on this petition on May 16, 2016.
The first witness at the hearing was Ms. Newell's mother. She testified that Ms. Newell was unable to care adequately for K. because of a psychological condition. In his own testimony, Mr. Holbrook stated that K. and Ms. Newell were residing with him so that he could care for K., and so that K. and her mother would have a place to live while Ms. Newell seeks treatment for her health problems. The circuit court then recessed. When proceedings resumed, the following occurred:
Mr. Holbrook filed a motion for reconsideration, in which he presented the same
The circuit court dismissed the custody petition on the grounds that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the parties were living in the same household. Whether the court's interpretation of its inherent and statutory authority was correct is a legal question, which we review de novo. Cabrera v. Mercado, 230 Md.App. 37, 80, 146 A.3d 567 (2016).
There are two relevant statutes. The first is § 5-203(d)(1) of the Family Law Article (1984, 2012 Repl. Vol.) ("FL"), which provides that, "if the parents live apart, a court may award custody to either parent or joint custody to both parents." The second statute is FL § 1-201, which states in pertinent part:
Read together, the two statutes are admittedly ambiguous — § 5-203(d) authorizes a court to decide custody issues "if the parents live apart," whereas § 1-201(b) contains no such limitation. The Court of Appeals recognized and resolved this ambiguity in Ricketts v. Ricketts, 393 Md. 479, 501, 903 A.2d 857 (2006). In that case, the Court held that a circuit court could decide custody even if the parties to a divorce action were living in the same household, and even if the court declined to grant a judgment of divorce. At the heart of the Court's analysis is the long-established principle that a court's authority to decide issues of custody in the best interests of minor children is inherent and "`d[oes] not emanate from the Legislature.'" Taylor v. Taylor, 306 Md. 290, 298-99, 508 A.2d 964 (1986) (citing Glading v. Furman, 282 Md. 200, 208, 383 A.2d 398 (1978); Coleman v. Coleman, 228 Md. 610, 613, 180 A.2d 875 (1962)).
In reaching its result, the Ricketts Court examined the legislative history of the two statutes. The Court noted that the original version of what is now FL § 1-201:
393 Md. at 498, 903 A.2d 857 (quoting Barnard v. Barnard, 157 Md. 264, 267, 145 A. 614 (1929) (emphasis added by Ricketts)). The Court "also acknowledged that section `as declaratory of the inherent power of courts of equity over minors, and [that] in the exercise thereof it should be exercised with the paramount purpose in view of securing the welfare and promoting the best interest of the children.'" Id. (quoting Barnard, 157 Md. at 267, 145 A. 614). The Court concluded that "the Legislature did not disturb the courts' right to determine custody ... when a divorce was not decreed" when it enacted the predecessor to what is now FL § 5-203(b). 393 Md.
Id. at 501, 903 A.2d 857 (citations and quotation marks omitted).
The case before us is not a divorce proceeding but we can conceive of no reason why the State's interest in protecting the welfare of a child should depend upon the present or former marital status of the parents. Therefore, we think that it is appropriate to extend Ricketts' holding to cases in which the parents are not married. See also C. Callahan et al., MARYLAND FAMILY LAW § 5-57 (5th Ed. 2011) (Ricketts stands for the proposition "that a trial judge is not limited to exercising its equity jurisdiction to determine custody only to those situations where the parents are living separate and apart.").
Moreover, as we have noted, in 2015 the circuit court entered an order granting the parties joint custody over K. The court retains jurisdiction over custody even if the parents subsequently live under the same roof or if they resume cohabitation.
Ricketts, 393 Md. at 484 n.1, 903 A.2d 857.