Santo v. Santo, No. 89, Sept. Term, 2015.

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtADKINS, J.
Citation141 A.3d 74,448 Md. 620
PartiesAdam SANTO v. Grace SANTO.
Docket NumberNo. 89, Sept. Term, 2015.
Decision Date11 July 2016

448 Md. 620
141 A.3d 74

Adam SANTO
v.
Grace SANTO.

No. 89, Sept. Term, 2015.

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

July 11, 2016.


141 A.3d 75

James S. Maxwell (Brian M. Barke, Joel R. Zuckerman, Maxwell, Barke & Zuckerman, LLC, Rockville, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

John S. Weaver (Weaver Law LLC, Rockville, MD; Susan Werner Scofield, Rockville, MD; Sarah I. Malik, Malik Law LLC, Rockville, MD), on brief, for Respondent.

141 A.3d 76

Argued before BARBERA, C.J., GREENE, ADKINS, McDONALD, WATTS, HOTTEN, and LYNNE A. BATTAGLIA (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

ADKINS, J.

448 Md. 624

In Taylor v. Taylor, 306 Md. 290, 293, 508 A.2d 964 (1986), we decided that an award of joint custody was a permissible exercise of a trial court's general equity powers. Notably, we also explained in Taylor that the most important factor for a court to consider before awarding joint custody is the capacity of the parents to communicate and to reach shared decisions affecting a child's welfare. Id. at 304, 508 A.2d 964. Today we address whether a court abused its discretion in awarding joint custody in spite of evidence that, to put it mildly, the parents could not communicate and reach shared decisions for their two children. As a related matter—one not addressed explicitly in Taylor —we consider the propriety of the use of provisions in joint custody awards that grant one parent the authority to make a decision about a matter affecting the child when the parents cannot agree. We call these tie-breaking provisions.

FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

Adam Santo (“Father”) and Grace Santo (“Mother”) married in 2000 and divorced in 2011. They have two sons, who were eight and five years old, respectively, at the time of the divorce. Following a 2011 order of joint legal custody, the Santos renewed the battle over their children by filing more motions. Custody was modified in 2013 to, among other things, facilitate joint custody through the use of a parenting

448 Md. 625

coordinator. Several other motions are indicative of their ongoing struggle.

The precise motion that led to the question we review today was Father's 2014 motion to modify custody. Therein Father sought sole custody of his sons so that, he maintains, “the children will not remain in a combat zone forever.” Following a three-day hearing, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County denied Father's motion and preserved a joint custody arrangement. We shall discuss the court's findings and the details of that arrangement infra, particularly the tie-breaking provisions awarded to each parent.

Father noted a timely appeal, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court's decision in an unreported opinion.

Father filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari to this Court, which we granted1 :

Whether the trial court abused its discretion in ordering joint custody in light of Taylor v. Taylor, 306 Md. 290 [508 A.2d 964] (1986) ?

Because we answer no, we shall affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review a trial court's custody determination for abuse of discretion. Petrini v. Petrini, 336 Md. 453, 470, 648 A.2d 1016 (1994). This standard of review accounts for the trial court's unique “opportunity to observe the demeanor and the credibility of the parties and the witnesses.” Id.

141 A.3d 77

Though a deferential standard, abuse of discretion may arise when “ ‘no reasonable person would take the view

448 Md. 626

adopted by the [trial] court’ or when the court acts ‘without reference to any guiding rules or principles.’ ” In re Adoption/Guardianship No. 3598, 347 Md. 295, 312, 701 A.2d 110 (1997) (internal citations omitted). Such an abuse may also occur when the court's ruling is “ ‘clearly against the logic and effect of facts and inferences before the court’ or when the ruling is ‘violative of fact and logic.’ ” Id. (internal citations omitted). Put simply, we will not reverse the trial court unless its decision is “ ‘well removed from any center mark imagined by the reviewing court.’ ” Id. at 313, 701 A.2d 110 (citation omitted).

The light that guides the trial court in its determination, and in our review, is “the best interest of the child standard,” which “is always determinative in child custody disputes.” Ross v. Hoffman, 280 Md. 172, 178, 372 A.2d 582 (1977).

DISCUSSION

Father avers that the Circuit Court erred because it did not follow the “sine qua non for an award of joint legal custody” as established in Taylor v. Taylor, 306 Md. 290, 508 A.2d 964 (1986). In his view, an award of joint legal custody requires that the parents effectively communicate or will be capable of making parenting decisions together in the future. The record and the Circuit Court's findings, Father contends, reflect a tale of “parties [who] have been and remain at war with one another.” He thus maintains that it was an abuse of discretion for the Circuit Court to have granted an award of joint custody to parents whom it knew could not communicate effectively.

Mother disagrees, and reads Taylor as merely setting forth “nonexclusive factors” for a court to apply in a custody dispute. Mother maintains that Taylor requires the court to consider “all factors and options available” to determine “what is in the best interest of the children.” In Mother's view, the Circuit Court did just that—applied the relevant factors,

448 Md. 627

considered options, and made a decision for the children's best interests.

Taylor v. Taylor

We begin our analysis of Taylor by reviewing the Court's explication of legal and physical custody, and joint legal and joint physical custody—terms important to our discussion. “Legal custody carries with it the right and obligation to make long range decisions” that significantly affect a child's life, such as education or religious training. Taylor, 306 Md. at 296, 508 A.2d 964. “Physical custody, on the other hand, means the right and obligation to provide a home for the child and to make” daily decisions as necessary while the child is under that parent's care and control. Id.

In joint legal custody, the Taylor Court explained, “both parents have an equal voice in making [long range] decisions, and neither parent's rights are superior to the other.” Id. In joint physical custody, the parents will share or divide custody of the child, but not necessarily “on a 50/50 basis.” Id. at 297, 508 A.2d 964. With respect to a circuit court's authority in child custody cases, “the power of the court is very broad so that it may accomplish the paramount purpose of securing the welfare and promoting the best interest of the child.” Id. at 301–02, 508 A.2d 964. To assist trial courts “in determining whether joint custody is appropriate,” the Taylor Court offered up “the major factors” to consider.

141 A.3d 78

Id. at 303, 508 A.2d 964.2

448 Md. 628

To be sure, the Taylor Court saw “the most important factor” in deciding whether to award joint legal custody as the “capacity of the parents to communicate and to reach shared decisions affecting the child's welfare.”3 Id. at 304, 508 A.2d 964. As it explained, “there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by conditioning the making of decisions affecting the child's welfare upon the mutual agreement of” parents who are “severely embittered” and whose “relationship [is] marked by dispute, acrimony, and a failure of rational communication.” Id. at 305, 508 A.2d 964.

In other words, Taylor stands for the proposition that effective parental communication is weighty in a joint legal custody situation because, under such circumstances, parents are charged with making important decisions together that affect a child's future. If parents cannot make those decisions together because, for example, they are unable to put aside their bitterness for one another, then the child's future could be compromised.

To further guide trial courts in evaluating parental communication, the Taylor Court explained that “the best evidence” a court should look for is “past conduct or [a] ‘track record’ of the parties.” Id. at 307, 508 A.2d 964. “Rarely, if ever,” is a joint legal custody award permissible, the Court stated, absent such conduct, “and then only when it is possible to make a finding of a strong potential for such conduct in the future.” Id. at 304, 508 A.2d 964. In the latter circumstance, the Court said, “the trial judge must articulate fully the reasons that support that conclusion.” Id. at 307, 508 A.2d 964.

448 Md. 629

In asking us to hold that joint legal custody “should be awarded only if a custody...

To continue reading

Request your trial
149 practice notes
  • Gizzo v. Gerstman, No. 3236 Sept. Term, 2018
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • April 1, 2020
    ...or when the ruling is clearly against the logic and effect of facts and inferences before the court. See, e.g. , Santo v. Santo , 448 Md. 620, 625-26, 141 A.3d 74 (2016). This standard "accounts for the trial court's unique ‘opportunity to observe the demeanor and the credibility of the par......
  • Kpetigo v. Kpetigo, No. 2122, Sept. Term, 2017
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • August 30, 2018
    ...acknowledges, as he must, that joint legal custody with a tie-breaker "has unquestionably been recognized in Maryland." Santo v. Santo , 448 Md. 620, 632–33, 141 A.3d 74 (2016) ; see also Shenk v. Shenk , 159 Md. App. 548, 560, 860 A.2d 408 (2004). We see no abuse of discretion in the court......
  • E.N. v. T.R., No. 44, Sept. Term, 2020
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • July 12, 2021
    ...legal custody is whether the parents can communicate and make meaningful decisions together about the child. See, e.g., Santo v. Santo, 448 Md. 620, 628, 630, 141 A.3d 74, 78, 79 (2016) (Although not the dispositive factor, "effective parental communication is weighty in 255 A.3d 31 a joint......
  • Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P., No. 2125, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • April 29, 2021
    ...of the IVF Contract. We generally review the circuit court's custody determination under an abuse of discretion standard. Santo v. Santo , 448 Md. 620, 625, 141 A.3d 74 (2016). Likewise, we review a trial court's distribution of marital property for abuse of discretion. Hart v. Hart , 169 M......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
149 cases
  • Gizzo v. Gerstman, No. 3236 Sept. Term, 2018
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • April 1, 2020
    ...or when the ruling is clearly against the logic and effect of facts and inferences before the court. See, e.g. , Santo v. Santo , 448 Md. 620, 625-26, 141 A.3d 74 (2016). This standard "accounts for the trial court's unique ‘opportunity to observe the demeanor and the credibility of the par......
  • Kpetigo v. Kpetigo, No. 2122, Sept. Term, 2017
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • August 30, 2018
    ...acknowledges, as he must, that joint legal custody with a tie-breaker "has unquestionably been recognized in Maryland." Santo v. Santo , 448 Md. 620, 632–33, 141 A.3d 74 (2016) ; see also Shenk v. Shenk , 159 Md. App. 548, 560, 860 A.2d 408 (2004). We see no abuse of discretion in the court......
  • E.N. v. T.R., No. 44, Sept. Term, 2020
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • July 12, 2021
    ...legal custody is whether the parents can communicate and make meaningful decisions together about the child. See, e.g., Santo v. Santo, 448 Md. 620, 628, 630, 141 A.3d 74, 78, 79 (2016) (Although not the dispositive factor, "effective parental communication is weighty in 255 A.3d 31 a joint......
  • Jocelyn P. v. Joshua P., No. 2125, Sept. Term, 2019
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • April 29, 2021
    ...of the IVF Contract. We generally review the circuit court's custody determination under an abuse of discretion standard. Santo v. Santo , 448 Md. 620, 625, 141 A.3d 74 (2016). Likewise, we review a trial court's distribution of marital property for abuse of discretion. Hart v. Hart , 169 M......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT