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Long-Distance Parenting: Travel Restrictions

Timothy P. Flynn Feb. 29, 2024

passenger jet flyingOur law firm handles many custody and parenting time matters where one parent resides far from the other parent. Long-distance parenting is a challenge for many families. This post examines how family courts treat the long-distance challenge.

Whether a parent lives far away from the other parent here in Michigan, or resides in another state, distance introduces acute parenting challenges that often need to be addressed by the family courts. Long-distance parenting presents challenges to parents seeking equal parenting time and makes parenting transitions more complicated.

Parenting schedules are far more complex and tenuous when long distances between the parents’ homes are involved. Often, compromises and sacrifices are required for both parents to exercise their allotted time.

Questions arise about utilizing the unaccompanied minor programs of bus carriers and airlines. Extracurricular activities are often impacted. Courts are faced with deciding whether the child or the parent should be the one doing the traveling.

A Recent Illustrative Case

A recent case from Washtenaw County addressed the issue of awarding parenting time to a parent that must travel a long distance. In Sangji v Bendapudi, both parents are doctors; they had a very brief marriage. The trial court allowed father to occasionally parent the parties’ son from his Boston residence.

Both parents felt aggrieved by the family court and filed cross appeals. Father’s appeal asserted the lower court did not allow him enough time in Boston with his son; Mother asserted that the lower court awarded Father too much time in Boston.

Mother also asserted the lower court erred by delegating its authority to resolve the parties’ parenting disputes to a guardian ad litem; Father also claimed the lower court erred by “completely ignoring” his claim for attorney fees. There were other issues raised on appeal in this case that are not relevant to this post.

Father was a physician researcher with an established practice in Boston at the time of the parties’ nuptials. Mother was just completing her physician training and ultimately applied for and accepted a job at the University of Michigan after the parties married; she moved to Ann Arbor when she was 8-months pregnant. Mother’s job became a wedge between these new parents and Father ultimately stayed in Boston and filed for divorce in Washtenaw County.

Parental Travel Restrictions

Father asserted on appeal -for the first time- that the family court lacked the authority to restrict the geographic area within which he could exercise his parenting time. He also claimed that his constitutional liberty interests were impacted by the trial court’s travel limitation.

The Court of Appeals did not take the bait, declining to address the constitutionality of a family court imposing travel restrictions on a parent that lives outside of Michigan. The appellate court did make clear, however, that family courts do have the authority to subject parenting time to certain conditions whenever they are in the children’s best interests.

The Sangji case featured the testimony of five expert witnesses -psychologists- who opined on the issue of whether such long-distance travel was in such a young child’s best interests. Mother proffered the testimony of Dr. Jack Haynes, a well-known expert that testifies frequently in the Michigan family courts. Both Dr. Haynes and the court-appointed GAL testified that long distance travel for young children is stressful; they are less mature and their mechanisms for coping with long travel are undeveloped. Dr. Haynes concluded that less travel for the child was less stressful.

Dr. Haynes and the GAL concluded that in general, and in this particular case, it is in the child’s best interests to have the parent do the traveling, not the child. Most of us would agree that this makes sense.

Family Courts Can Place Reasonable Restrictions on Parenting Time

County family courts have statutory authority to make parenting time decisions. Family courts, per statute, can provide for parenting time in general or specific terms. Conditions can be placed on parenting time by a court. For example, it is common for a family court to condition a parent’s time with their children on attending AA meetings, seeking drug treatment, verification of sobriety, participating in therapy or any other requirement that facilitates the orderly and meaningful exercise of parenting time.

In the Sangji case, the restriction was on long-distance travel. The family court preferred the Father to do a majority of the traveling, not the child. This decision, in part, was based on the testimony of five expert witnesses; all specializing in children.  While these experts testified it was important for this young child to have a meaningful and secure relationship with both parents, their consensus was that the parenting plan should minimize the travel burden on the child.

Accordingly, the family court fashioned a parenting schedule that restricted Father’s parenting time to the Ann Arbor area part of the time, while allowing him to exercise parenting time in Boston on other occasions. Neither parent was satisfied with this ruling thus, both parents filed cross-appeals.

The lower court limited the amount of times the young child would have to take long trips to see his Father. In affirming the lower court, the Court of Appeals noted that, rather than taking his very young son around Boston, it was in the boy’s best interests to become accustomed to his Father’s home.

This rationale will strike some as very reasonable. Others, however, will assert that it is not for the trial or appellate courts to determine the best way to parent young children. Alas, the constitutional nature of that argument was not properly preserved or presented to the reviewing court, so we will await another case to test the limits of a family court’s power to place conditions on a parent’s time with his or her children.

Other Common-Sense Parenting Factors

In affirming the lower court, the Court of Appeals was also influenced by the fact that the young boy lived in Ann Arbor, not Boston. The court noted that the restrictions placed on Father’s parenting time by the trial court were age-appropriate; that the child’s age was appropriately taken into account when the lower court fashioned its parenting restrictions.

Time and again in our law practice, we have found that the best way for a parent to share a 50/50 parenting schedule is to reside close to the other parent. Sometimes, however, that is just not possible, as in the Sangji case. Father was simply not willing to restructure his life to accommodate his new family. While people have a wide range of reactions to such a decision, there is no doubt that weighty consequences flow from his choice.  

Our law firm has dealt with many cases involving long-distance travel. Sometimes, in such cases, one parent requests the ability to utilize an airline's "unaccompanied minor" program. This is where one parent gets the child to the gate, but does not accompany the child on the flight. Family courts can restrict or grant such requests depending on the circumstances of the case and its assessment of the child's best interests.

Another interesting feature of this case was that, despite the long-distance between the parents, the lower court nevertheless awarded the parents joint legal and physical custody. This was a significant ruling for an out-of-town father.

The Sangji case also featured a dynamic we see frequently in our practice. Although Mother was a physician, a surgeon, she took her young child to the ER for superficial injuries. CPS became entangled in this case; the alleged abuse was not substantiated.

Mother -a doctor- also repeatedly rejected the advice of the child’s pediatrician regarding his sleep disturbances. She blamed those on Father, suggesting it was another basis to limit Father’s contact with the child.

The family court inferred that Mother had an ulterior motive in doing these things: to attempt to establish an abuse case against Father. Truly, these are sad cases where parents take a “scorched earth” approach to “winning” the custody or the parenting battle with their former spouse. In such cases, the children lose every time.

We Can Help

If you are a parent facing a long-distance relationship with your minor child, or if your co-parent lives far away and you need assistance, contact our office. We can schedule a free consultation to learn more about your case and address any outstanding parenting problems.