When considering parents’ agreements, judges must safeguard kids. A court isn’t bound by parents’ agreements regarding child support, custody, or visitation. Feliciano v. Feliciano, 674 So.2d 937 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996); see also Yitzhari v. Yitzhari, 906 So.2d 1250, 1257 n. 4 (Fla. 3d DCA 2005).
A Court’s Responsibility to the Child
Florida family law courts have a heavy responsibility to children. In carrying out this responsibility, they must ensure purported agreements or arrangements between parents don’t shortchange their child. A court “is not bound by an agreement of parents regarding child support, custody, or visitation.” See Puglisi v. Puglisi, 135 So. 3d 1146, 1148 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014) (citations omitted). Rather, the “best interests” of the child supersede “any agreement between the parents and must be independently determined by the trial court.” Id.
Likewise, in Jones v. Jones, 674 So.2d 770, 774 (Fla. 5th DCA 1996), the court held:
“The best interests of the children are to govern the custody decision, regardless of any stipulation between the parties.”) A trial court may set an agreement aside on child support, custody, and visitation if the agreement is not in the best interest of the children.
“It is undisputed, and should be indisputable, that a trial court’s responsibility to the child cannot be abdicated to any parent, any expert. That heavy responsibility mandates that a court is not bound by any agreement between parents.”Dorsett v. Dorsett, 902 So. 2d 947, 951 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005) (quoting Lane v. Lane, 599 So.2d 218, 219 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992))
The court must guard against a parent’s bargaining away a child’s rights for reasons unrelated to the child’s best interests. See Griffith v. Griffith, 860 So.2d 1069, 1071-1072 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003); Cappola v. Cappola, 280 So. 3d 102 (Fla. 4th DCA 2019).
Judges Have No Free Hand to Disregard Parents’ Wishes
Although parents’ agreements affecting a child’s rights are not binding on the judge, Feliciano v. Feliciano, 674 So.2d 937 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996), the judge has no free hand to disregard their wishes. Sedell v. Sedell, 100 So.2d 639, 642 (Fla. 1st DCA 1958).
A court should respect and uphold such agreements unless a valid reason related to (1) the best interest of the child or (2) a finding that parents’ agreements were involuntary or the product of fraud justifies not respecting and upholding the parents’ agreements.
See Griffith v. Griffith, 860 So. 2d 1069, 1072 (Fla. 1st DCA 2003)(insufficient evidence supported trial judge’s disdaining parents’ mediation agreement resolving alimony, child support, and custody, conducting post-mediation hearings to determine if the agreement was in the children’s best interest, and, concluding the agreement wasn’t in the children’s best interest, reducing doctor-mom’s agreed-on child support obligation); Williams v. Sapp, 255 So. 3d 912 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018)(With no notice or opportunity for mom to be heard, a trial judge improperly modified parents’ mediation agreement for mom to have sole parental responsibility; the trial court must either approve the parents’ agreement as they negotiated it or, if the court is unable or unwilling to do so, must conduct a properly noticed evidentiary hearing).
Collaborating parents who’d like to adopt Parenting Plan provisions that cover anticipated future events must respect the court’s obligation to safeguard children the provisions would affect.