Testimony in Custody Cases
The standard for custody determinations in Pennsylvania is the "best interests of the child." Accordingly, when proceeding with a custody matter, it is important to take testimony from all persons who may affect the best interests of the child in question.
"[I]n order to assess the best interests and general welfare of the child or children, it is the duty of the trial judge to make the fullest possible inquiry in custody actions. All pertinent facts and circumstances surrounding the contesting parties must be fully explored and developed." Tracey L. v. Mattye F., 446 Pa. Super. 281(1995).
The spouses, significant others, children, other close relatives and household members of the parties involved should testify at any custody hearing. In Gunter v. Gunter, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania explained that other relationships of the parents will always be a fact requiring consideration in a custody case. 240 Pa. Super. 382, 392 (1976). This inquiry is part of the best interests of the child analysis which requires the court to consider all facts including the effect of the parents’ relationships on the child. Id. at 392-393.
In Harner v. Harner, the court reached a decision on custody after Appellee’s girlfriend testified and the court was satisfied that Appellee and girlfriend intended to establish a home for the child and the relationship between Appellee and girlfriend was a stable and meaningful one. 330 Pa. Super. 343, 350-351 (1984).
In the concurring opinion in T.B. v. L.R.M. the court looked at the factors for determining the best interests of the child under the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act. 874 A.2d 34, 41 (2005). Section 402 provides that the court shall determine the interaction and interrelationship between the child, his parents, his siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interests. Id. at 42. The court went on to say that consideration should be given to the family members and significant others who will interact with the child. Id. at 44.
Finally, in Tracey L. v. Mattye F., 446 Pa. Super. 281(1995), the Superior Court held that the trial judge must make the "fullest possible inquiry in custody actions" in order to determine the best interests of the child. This means "all pertinent facts and circumstances surrounding the contesting parties must be fully explored and developed." Id. at 285.
The effect these relationships have on the child must be considered as part of the required best interests analysis as the court determined in Gunter. Harner demonstrates the desirability of the parties’ significant other testifying as there the court was able to make a well-reasoned custody decision based on the testimony of Appellee’s girlfriend. Similarly, the spouses, significant others, children, other close relatives and household members of the parties involved should provide testimony to make sure a complete analysis of the best interests of the child can be performed.