The Second Department, reversing Family Court, determined the conditional directive that sole custody of the child be awarded to father if mother did not return from Sweden with the child within 30 days was not enforceable. There was no application for a change of custody before the court. The conditional directive was issued to punish mother for moving to and remaining in Sweden and was not based upon the best interests of the child:
The paramount concern in any custody determination is the best interests of the child, under the totality of the circumstances … . Reversal or modification of an existing custody order ” should not be a weapon wielded as a means of punishing a recalcitrant’ or contemptuous parent” … . In addition, “where no party has moved for a change in custody, a court may not modify an existing custody order in a non-emergency situation absent notice to the parties, and without affording the custodial parent an opportunity to present evidence and to call and cross-examine witnesses” … .
Here, the Family Court’s conditional directive that sole legal and physical custody of the child shall be transferred to the father if the mother did not return the child to New York City within 30 days was meant to punish the mother and was not based on the court’s determination of the best interests of the child. The court should not have considered a change in custody in the absence of an application for such relief with notice to the mother …. Further, the court’s conditional award of custody to the father was improper in light of the court’s determination otherwise that it was in the child’s best interests to remain in the custody of the mother, and considering, among other things, that the mother had always been the child’s primary caretaker, the father did not have overnight visits with the child, and the court had previously expressed concerns about the father’s ability to care for the child for an extended period of time … . Matter of Ross v Ross, 2020 NY Slip Op 03668, Second Dept 7-1-20