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VMM FAMILY INSTITUTE WEEKLY INSIGHTS: RESOLVING THE ISSUE OF PARENTAL ALIENATION

In a recent matrimonial action in Monroe County, the Court had to resolve the issue of what is parental alienation and when does it require a change in primary residence and/or time sharing.

The Court stated that the term is actually “an undefined concept in matrimonial law,” recognizing that the concept of parental alienation has evolved in New York as a result of aggressive parent reaction to changes in relationships with their children after a divorce. The Court also acknowledged that New York courts have accepted this notion in determining whether a change in circumstances exists warranting a modification of custody. Although there are technical definitions, the concept of parental alienation remains controversial, both in psychological studies and in the courts. The actual definition has been set forth as “a concerted effort by one parent to interfere with the other parent’s contact with the child which is so inimical to the best interest of the child that it, per se, raises a strong probability that the interfering parent is unfit to act as a custodial parent.”

The Monroe Court wrestled with a more workable definition of parental alienation and to more clearly deal with the concept of what constitutes unjustified behavior. In arriving at a definition, this Court borrowed from a comparable tort law precedent called the Tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, a concept in which an individual, as a consequence of certain directed behavior caused harm to the emotional status of a second party. The Tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress consists of four elements:

1. Extreme and outrageous conduct;
2. Intent to cause or disregard of a substantial probability of causing, severe emotional distress;
3. A causal connection between the conduct and the injury; and
4. Severe emotional distress.

This Court reasoned that a simple word substitution “parental alienation” for “emotional distress” could resolve the issue and create a definition that all courts could work with. By simply substituting a phrase, parental alienation would consist of the following four elements:
1. Extreme and outrageous conduct;
2. Intent to cause or disregard of a substantial probability of causing severe alienation of a parent from a child;
3. A causal connection between the alienating conduct and the child’s rejection of a parent; and
4. Severe parental alienation.

The Court then implemented its definition in resolving the matter. This definition of Parental Alienation may be key and a future standard which can guide the Courts and litigants. It also may enable the Court to protect an individual’s emotional state and to protect and preserve a parent’s relationship with their children.

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