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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Court of Appeals Holds Non-custodial Parent Does Not Retain Decision-making Authority

Non-custodial Parent Does Not Retain Decision-making Authority Pertaining to Education of Child Where Custodial Parent Granted Exclusive Custody of the Child and Decree and Custody Order Are Silent as to Right to Control Such Decisions.

In Fuentes v Board of Educ. of City of New York, --- NY3d ----, 2009 WL 1148636 (2009) Plaintiff Jesus Fuentes and his wife were divorced in 1996. Family Court entered an order granting the wife exclusive custody of the three children, including a son, M.F., who, due to a genetic disorder, was legally blind. M.F. attended public school in New
York City and received special education services to accommodate his disability. In 2000, plaintiff believed that M.F.'s special education services and accommodations were inadequate and requested a reevaluation. When the Committee on Special Education for the Hearing, Handicapped, and Visually Impaired responded that M.F's services were adequate, plaintiff requested a hearing from the Impartial Hearing Office of the New York State Department of Education to review that determination. In 2001, plaintiff's request for a hearing was denied based on his status as the non-custodial parent of M.F. The Office concluded that because plaintiff was not the "person in parental relation" (Education Law 3212), he did not have the right to make educational decisions pertaining to M.F. and, consequently, did not have a right to request a hearing. Plaintiff then commenced an action in the United States District Court, alleging, among other things, that he was denied his right under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to a hearing to review the determinations of the Board of Education. After a dismissal, appeal, and remand on issues not pertinent to the certified question, the district court dismissed plaintiff's case for lack of standing under the IDEA. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that no precedent from the Court of Appeals directly addressed the dispositive issue and certified a question, which the Court of Appeals reformulated: " Whether, under New York Law, the non-custodial parent of a child retains decision-making
authority pertaining to the education of the child where (1) the custodial parent is granted exclusive custody of the child and (2) the divorce decree and custody order are silent as to the right to control such decisions. " As reformulated the certified question was answered in the negative. The Court of Appeals noted that it is well settled in the
Appellate Division that, absent specific provisions in a separation agreement, custody order, or divorce decree, the custodial parent has sole decision-making authority with respect to practically all aspects of the child's upbringing. It declined to recognize an implied right of non-custodial parents to exercise decision-making authority with respect
to their child's education notwithstanding the custody order's silence on this subject and emphasized the importance of parties determining these issues at the time of separation or divorce. The Court noted the distinction between a non-custodial parent's right to "participate" in a child's education and the right to "control" educational decisions. Generally, there is nothing which prevents a non-custodial parent (even one without any decision making authority) from requesting information about, keeping apprised of, or otherwise remaining interested in the child's educational progress. However, unless the custody order expressly permits joint decision-making authority or designates particular authority with respect to the child's education, a non-custodial
parent has no right to "control" such decisions. This authority properly belongs to the custodial parent.

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