The mother sought permission to move to North Carolina with the child of the parties. There appears to have been no question of whether she truly loves the man she wants to marry there and start a new life with, and there was no issue of whether her son had strongly bonded to his mother during his seven young years. However, the court found that the network of family and friends in the area of the parties’ upstate Ulster County home, as well as the father’s active involvement in the child’s life and his academic success in school here in New York made this the child’s real home. The court then directed that the mother make the choice: stay and keep custody, or leave and lose it.
It may well be impossible to be completely fair to both parents when stuck with a choice between such basic interests — personal freedom of the custodial parent on the one hand, and the quality of the non-custodial parent’s relationship with the child on the other. Faced with such a difficult choice, the Stearns court focused instead on the child’s perspective, recognizing that if the interests of the parents compete substantially — i.e., the relocating mother has a much needed or very desirable new life awaiting her elsewhere, yet the father has an indisputably involved and loving relationship with the child or children — then the parents’ interests are no longer really relevant. The court is almost forced to view the relocation from the child’s perspective.
In Stearns, this meant that the child’s success in his current school program outweighed the risk that he would do as well in an untried program in North Carolina. It meant that the child’s established relationships with family and friends in Ulster County were more important than any emotional benefit that might accrue to the child should his mother be free to live happily ever after in a different state. This approach — considering the best interests of the child in light of the quality of all of his social and educational connections to his home — was recognized by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in the groundbreaking decision in Tropea v. Tropea (87 N.Y.2d 727, 1996):
…each relocation request must be considered on its own merits with due consideration of all the relevant factors and circumstances and with predominant emphasis being placed on what outcome is most likely to serve the best interests of the child…it is the rights and needs of the children that must be accorded the greatest weight…(emphasis supplied).
In Tropea, the Wife sought judicial approval to relocate with the two children of the marriage to Schenectady, where she had already purchased a home with her fiancé, a well-established architect in the area. The father, who lived in Syracuse, about two and a half hours away from Schenectady, opposed the move and petitioned for custody. The court found that, while the father’s customary midweek visits would be impossible during the school term, the visitation schedule that the mother proposed would afford the father frequent and extended contact with his children. The court further found that the relocation would be in the best interests of the children.