Thursday, March 13, 2014

Florida Law on Morality, Adultery, Homosexuality, and Child Custody

Under Florida law, Courts are required to make all parenting decisions based on the child's best interests. The Florida legislature has set out 20 factors for courts to consider when establishing a parenting plan or making a parenting or custody determination.  See Fla. Stat. § 61.13(3).

The parenting factors address many issues, such as which parent is more willing to share time, handles more of the parenting responsibilities, acts on the interest of the child, has been caring for the child, demonstrates knowledge of the child's circumstances, provides a consistent routine, communicates with the other parent, avoids violence, and maintains a home free of substance abuse. See Fla. Stat. § 61.13(3).  These considerations are largely non-controversial.

Courts are also required to consider the "moral fitness of the parents."  See Fla. Stat. § 61.13(3)(f).  This factor is extremely subjective, and it does not frequently play a significant role in custody determinations.

For the trial court to consider a parent’s "moral fitness" in connection with establishing a parenting plan or determining parental responsibility, the conduct in question must have a “direct effect or impact” upon the minor child.  See Smith v. Smith, 39 So. 3d 458, 460 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010).  Moreover, the connection between the conduct and the harm to the child must have an evidentiary basis.  See id. (quoting Jacoby v. Jacoby, 763 So.2d 410, 413 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000)); see also Willis v. Willis, 818 So. 2d 530, 533 (Fla. 2d DCA 2002).   “A connection between the actions of the parent and the harm to the child...cannot be assumed.”  See Packard v. Packard, 697 So. 2d 1292, 1293 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997).

Further, when a parent's alleged adultery is at issue, the act of adultery should not be taken into consideration in determining custody unless the trial court finds that the adultery has a direct bearing on the child’s welfare. See Smith, 39 So. 3d at 461Dinkel v. Dinkel, 322 So. 2d 22, 24 (Fla. 1975)Willis, 818 So. 2d at 533. Marital misconduct is not necessarily an appropriate standard for determining the best interests of the child.  See Farrow v. Farrow, 263 So. 2d 588, 590 (Fla. 2d DCA 1972)McAnespie v. McAnespie, 200 So. 2d 606, 609 (Fla. 2d DCA 1967).  Even if a parent commits adultery, it may be better for that parent to have custody of the child.  See Willis, 818 So. 2d at 533.  “Adultery may or may not have any direct bearing on the welfare of a child of tender years.”  Id.  The mere possibility of a negative impact on the child is not sufficient.  See Willis, 818 So. 2d at 533.

Florida courts have also rejected any notion that the potential of societal disapproval for immoral behavior may be used as a justification for favoring one parent in a custody case.  See Lofton v. Sec’y. of the Dept. of Children and Family Services, 377 F.3d 1275, 1300 (Anderson, J., dissenting from the Denial of Rehearing En Banc) (citing Maradie v. Maradie, 680 So. 2d 538 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996)).

In Maradie v. Maradie, 680 So. 2d 538, 540 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996), the parties presented considerable testimony about the sexual conduct of each parent and its relation to the parent's "moral fitness" under section 61.13(3)(f), Florida Statutes.  Among other things, the former husband presented evidence that his former wife was bisexual and had been involved in lesbian relationships.  Id.  The court-appointed psychologist testified, however, that there was no evidence that the former wife's sexual orientation impaired her parenting ability or had negatively impacted the child.  Id.  Nevertheless, the trial court awarded custody of the parties' daughter to the former husband.  Id.  The trial court based its decision on the following reasoning:
The testimony reveals that Mrs. Maradie, with her homosexual lover, spend nights and sleep together in the same bed, kiss, hold hands and speak in terms of endearment in front of the child. The possibility of negative impact on the child, especially as she grows older and reaches her late pre-teen and early teen years, is considerable.  The Court does not have to have expert evidence to reach this conclusion, but can take judicial notice that a homosexual environment is not a traditional home environment, and can adversely affect a child. To say that this cannot be considered until there is actual proof that it has occurred is asking the Court to abdicate its common sense and responsible decision-making endeavors.
Maradie, 680 So. 2d at 540-41.  Florida's First District Court of Appeal explained that the trial court was permitted to consider a parent's sexual conduct in determining the parent's moral fitness under section 61.13(3)(f).  The trial court, however, was required to focus on whether the parent's behavior had a direct impact on the welfare of the child.  Id. at 541.  The trial court certainly was not permitted to take "judicial notice" of the "fact" that a homosexual environment is not traditional and can adversely affect a child.  Id. at 541.

In Ward v. Ward, 742 So. 2d 250, 254 (Fla. 1st DCA 1996), Florida's First District Court of Appeal again clarified that the sexual orientation of the custodial parent does not, by itself, justify a custody change.  In Ward, the trial court changed custody from the former wife, who was a lesbian, to the former husband, who was previously convicted of second degree murder for killing his first wife.  Id. at 252.  On appeal, Florida's First District Court of Appeal found that the trial court was not focused on the fact that the former wife was a lesbian, but rather on the best interests of the child.  Id.  The trial court concluded that the former wife was involved in a relationship that directly and adversely affected the child.  Id. at 254.  The First District Court of Appeal held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by changing custody because the determination was without regard to the sexual orientation of that relationship.  Id.

In Packard v. Packard, 697 So. 2d 1292, 1293 (Fla. 1st DCA 1997), the trial court awarded custody to the former husband where the wife was a lesbian who had been living with a woman with whom the parties had been involved in a menage a trois during their marriage.  Id.  Interestingly, at the time of the divorce, the former husband was living with his new girlfriend, her children, and the parties' daughters.  The former wife argued that the trial court based its custody decision solely on her sexual orientation.  Id.  The former husband's living arrangements were also fairly viewed as "untraditional."  Id.  The former wife argued that it was therefore discriminatory for the trial court to base its custody determination on the finding that a more "traditional family environment" would be provided by the former husband.  Id.  Florida's First District Court of Appeal again explained that the trial court may consider a parent's sexual conduct in determining the parent's moral fitness under section 61.13(3)(f), but that in such consideration "the trial court should focus on whether the parent's behavior has a direct impact on the welfare of the child."  Id.  In other words, the trial court's primary consideration must be on the conduct involved and whether the conduct has had or is reasonably likely to have an adverse impact on the child. Id.  The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's custody determination and remanded the case with instructions to follow the foregoing principles when considering the parties' moral fitness.  Id.

In Jacoby v. Jacoby, 763 So. 2d 410 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000), the former husband's case centered largely on his former wife's sexual orientation.  The trial court made remarks about the negative impact of the mother's  sexual orientation on the children.  Id. at 413.  The Second District Court of Appeal found that the trial court's comments were conclusory and unsupported by the evidence.  Id.  Specifically, the trial court found that "the community" shared the former husband's belief that homosexuals are immoral and should not be entrusted to rear children.  Id.  The trial court further found that a "strong stigma" attaches to homosexuality and that while being reared in a homosexual environment does not appear to alter sexual preference, it does affect social interaction and that it is likely that the children's peers or their parents will have negative words or thoughts.  Id.  The Second District Court of Appeal, however, found that even if the trial court's comments about the community's beliefs and possible reactions were correct and supported by the evidence, "the law cannot give effect to private biases."  Id.  With respect to the custody decision, the Second District further reasoned that "even if the law were to permit consideration of the biases of others, and even if we were to accept the assumption that such would necessarily harm the children, the bias and ensuing harm would flow not from the fact that the children were living with a homosexual mother, but from the fact that she is a homosexual."  Id.  Accordingly, the Second District Court of Appeal held that the trial court's "reliance on perceived biases was an improper basis for a residential custody determination."  Id.  The trial court also improperly concluded that the children's exposure to the Baptist religion coupled with living with a homosexual parent would necessarily created confusion for the children.  Id. at 414.  The lower court also made a number of other leaping conclusions in support of its decision to award custody to the heterosexual father.  Id. at 414-15.  None of these jumps conclusions were supported by the evidence, and the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's decision.  Id. at 414-15.  In short, when making its custody determination, the trial court permissibly penalized the mother for her sexual orientation without evidence that it harmed the children.  Id. at 415.

All of these decisions by the Florida courts make clear that homosexuality alone cannot be the basis for an adverse custody decision.  The trial court must link any allegedly "immoral behavior" to a direct affect on the minor children.  That connection must be supported by evidence in the record.  The link cannot be the product of speculation or judicial notice.  In other words, before a court can make any judgment concerning a party's homosexual or other allegedly "immoral" conduct, the court must be prepared to explain who the conduct at issue resulted in a direct impact on the minor child.

If you have questions about child custody issues in Florida, please contact an experienced Florida family law attorney.

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