Collaborative Parenting Plans: Judges Must Safeguard Children

Two kids pillow fighting with feathers flying. Photo by Allen Taylor (Unsplash)

Judges must safeguard children when considering parents’ agreements. A court is not bound by an agreement of parents 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).

Florida family law courts have a heavy responsibility to ensure any purported agreement or arrangement between a child’s parents does not shortchange the child. A trial 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.

See also, Jones v. Jones, 674 So.2d 770, 774 (Fla. 5th DCA 1996) (“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 the possibility that a parent might bargain away a child’s valuable 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).

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Judges Have No Free Hand to Disregard Parents’ Wishes

Although parents’ agreements affecting a child’s rights are not binding on the judge, See Feliciano v. Feliciano, 674 So.2d 937 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996), Florida case precedent holds 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).

Read more:

Part 1: Collaborative Family Law Agreements and A Child’s Prospective Best Interests 

Part 2: Collaborative Family Law Agreements: Florida Parenting Plan Basics

Part 3: Collaborative Family Law Agreements: Protecting a Child’s Future Best Interests

Part 4: Children’s Best Interests: Parenting Plans and Events Reasonably Certain to Occur

Part 5: Children’s Best Interests: Parenting Plans Entail Prediction

Part 6: Collaborative Parenting Plans: Extraordinary Burden for Modification

Part 7: Collaborative Family Law Agreements: Florida Favors Settlement Agreements

Part 9: Collaborative Parenting Plans: Anticipating Events Reasonably Certain to Occur

Part 10: Parenting Plan Modification: Enlist Court Review When Predicted Events Occur

Part 11: Collaborative Parenting Plans: How Will You Resolve Future Impasses?

Part 12: Can Contingencies Parents Build into their Parenting Plans Be Modifications?

Part 13: Parenting Plans: Agreeing to a Different Burden for Modification

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