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Is parental alienation illegal, or punishable by law?

Parental Alienation Not Generally Recognized by the Law and the Courts

In Utah (where I practice): no, parental alienation is not illegal, and no, parental alienation is not punishable by law. In fact, accusing a parent of “parental alienation” in most Utah courts would just get you an eye-roll from the judge.[1]

But. . .

Many, If Not All, Actions that Would Meet the Definition of “Parental Alienation” Can Be Sanctioned Legally

While Utah law does not formally recognize such a thing as “parental alienation”, Utah law does not allow divorced or unmarried parents to treat mistreat each other (or their children) with impunity.

When a parent is engaging in the kind of behavior that many would define as “alienating”[2], Utah law does allow court to consider such behavior in making a child custody award and/or modifying the child custody award.

Utah Code Sections that Should Obligate a Court to Consider Claims of Parental Alienation

For example, all of these provisions of the Utah Code arguably call for the court to hear and consider claims of what fall under the general “parental alienation” definition:

§ 30-3-10

(1)(a) In determining any form of custody, including a change in custody, the court shall consider the best interests of the child without preference for either parent solely because of the biological sex of the parent and, among other factors the court finds relevant, the following:

(i) the past conduct and demonstrated moral standards of each of the parties;

(ii) which parent is most likely to act in the best interest of the child, including allowing the child frequent and continuing contact with the noncustodial parent;

(iii) the extent of bonding between the parent and child, meaning the depth, quality, and nature of the relationship between a parent and child;

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(v) those factors outlined in Section 30-3-10.2.

§ 30-3-10.2

(2) In determining whether the best interest of a child will be served by ordering joint legal or physical custody, the court shall consider the following factors:

(a) whether the physical, psychological, and emotional needs and development of the child will benefit from joint legal or physical custody;

(b) the ability of the parents to give first priority to the welfare of the child and reach shared decisions in the child’s best interest;

(c) whether each parent is capable of encouraging and accepting a positive relationship between the child and the other parent, including the sharing of love, affection, and contact between the child and the other parent;

(f) the preference of the child if the child is of sufficient age and capacity to reason so as to form an intelligent preference as to joint legal or physical custody;

(g) the maturity of the parents and their willingness and ability to protect the child from conflict that may arise between the parents;

(h) the past and present ability of the parents to cooperate with each other and make decisions jointly;

(i) any history of, or potential for, child abuse, spouse abuse, or kidnapping; and

(j) any other factors the court finds relevant.

§ 30-3-10.4

(1) On the petition of one or both of the parents, or the joint legal or physical custodians if they are not the parents, the court may, after a hearing, modify or terminate an order that established joint legal or physical custody if:

(a) the verified petition or accompanying affidavit initially alleges that admissible evidence will show that the circumstances of the child or one or both parents or joint legal or physical custodians have materially and substantially changed since the entry of the order to be modified;

(b) a modification of the terms and conditions of the order would be an improvement for and in the best interest of the child[.]

Proving Parental Alienation Is Not Easy, But It Can Be Done (If You’re Willing to Make Your Case in a Way the Court Will Understand and Accept)

Proving that your ex-spouse’s alienating misconduct is the only reason your children show unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards you or and/or other family members is difficult because your A) ex-spouse will deny it; and B) your kids (who don’t know they’ve been brainwashed and alienated) will tell the court that they “honestly” fear and loathe you.

That doesn’t mean you can’t prove your innocence and your ex-spouse’s culpability, but it will be very hard because it’s two, maybe three (ex-spouse, a cynical, skeptical court, your kids) against one (you). If you don’t have indisputable, objectively verifiable evidence, you even more of an uphill battle ahead of you. If you can’t afford to get a lawyer and mental health professionals involved, your uphill battle just got steeper. Trying to persuade a judge on your own is nigh on to impossible. Indeed, it could backfire, and you could find yourself being branded the alienating parent. Forewarned if forearmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

[1] There are two main reasons for this:

  1. A) because i) accusations of parent of parental alienation require difficult and careful scrutiny, along with a discerning approach to the work, which makes it so tempting to dispense with claims of parental alienation by dismissing them as 1) “the words of a sore loser”and/or 2) “too far above my pay grade as a non-psychologist for me to address competently.”
  2. B) many (not all) judges and court commissioners get jaded fast. They are so accustomed to be lied to (and in high volumes) that they—somewhat understandably—become skeptical of everything, even objective facts. When a parent (especially a dad) tells the court, “My ex is alienating my kids from me,” you can see how a court’s reaction could be, “Yeah, yeah, you’re just a bitter, vengeful ex.”

[2] Wikipedia’s definition of parental alienation is a good one: “the process, and the result, of psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent and/or other family members. It is a distinctive form of psychological abuse, towards both the child and the rejected family members, that occurs almost exclusively in association with family separation or divorce, particularly where legal action is involved).”

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