Under relatively recent changes to the Pennsylvania law, a parent wishing to relocate his or her children must meet specific criteria before the court will allow the parental relocation. In reaching such a decision, the court will carefully examine the best interests of the children, as is demonstrated in the recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case of S.J.S. v. M.J.S.

A move from Erie to Buckingham

The mother and father had two daughters who were 6 and 3 years old when the couple separated after approximately six years of marriage. During the marriage, the father worked from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the week, and the mother worked from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. with the father acting as the primary caregiver. After the parties separated, the parties agreed to a custody arrangement and the father watched the girls two days a week and the mother’s stepmother watched them two days a week. The mother watched the girls at other times, and the parents also alternated weekends and holidays.

Several years after the separation, the mother mailed a notice of relocation to the father, planning a move from Erie to Buckingham. The father filed an objection to the relocation.

The distance between Erie and Buckingham was approximately 7.5 hours by car. The mother had admitted that if the relocation were granted, the father would be unable to visit frequently.

Following a trial, the court denied the mother’s request for relocation and issued a final custody order providing that the mother would retain primary custody if she remained in Erie, but that if the mother chose to relocate, the father would be awarded primary custody. The mother appealed this decision.

The motives for the relocation

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reviewed the findings of the trial court in reaching its decision. Specifically, the trial court had noted its concern with the mother’s motives since she acknowledged she wanted to get away from the father. In addition, the mother was accommodating her new boyfriend’s wish to be near both Philadelphia and New York City to pursue his desire to publish a novel. The new boyfriend was an aspiring writer supported by a family trust. The trial court had expressed its reservations as to whether the new boyfriend was capable of responsibly assisting in the upbringing of two adolescent girls.

Under Pennsylvania law, each party had the burden of establishing the integrity of their motives in either seeking the relocation or seeking to prevent it. Here, the mother did not meet her burden of establishing the integrity of her reasons for leaving Erie. The relocation to Buckingham would accommodate the new boyfriend’s interests, but the benefits to the children, such as a new suburban neighborhood and an excellent school, were not exclusive to Buckingham and did not outweigh the detrimental effect on the father’s relationship with the children. The court also contrasted the mother’s interest in remaining with the new boyfriend and traveling with him against the father’s motive to preserve his relationship with the children in this custody dispute.

For these and other reasons, there was no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision to deny the relocation request.

Carefully consider your options

Parents involved in a potential relocation dispute, whether they are opposing the move or attempting to relocate, need to consult with a family law attorney before taking any action. Seek an experienced lawyer who can help you determine your rights and options, as well as what is best for your children.