Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Terry and Schwelb, Associate
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia
(Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Trial Judge)
Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Terry.
Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Schwelb
Appellant Myles Spires, Jr., appeals from an order awarding appellee Yvonne Spires custody of their three minor children. Mr. Spires maintains that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to enforce provisions of marital and separation agreements which provided that he be awarded sole custody of the children and have complete power to determine Mrs. Spires' visitation rights. We hold that because those portions of the agreements are unenforceable in the District of Columbia, the trial court correctly disregarded them and based its decisions on custody and visitation solely on the best interests of the children. We also reject appellant's contention that the trial court erred in failing to give adequate consideration to the relationship between the children and their half-brother. Finding no error in the record before us, we affirm. *fn1
Myles and Yvonne Spires were married on October 27, 1984. The marriage produced three children: Myles III, born August 1, 1985; Lorenzo, born October 16, 1986; and Paul, born August 22, 1989. Delanta Spires, Mr. Spires' son from a previous relationship, also lived in the marital home. Sometime around 1990 the marital relationship began to deteriorate because of financial disputes and mutual suspicions of infidelity. On September 23, 1991, following a three-day separation, the parties signed a document described as a "marital agreement," in which Mr. Spires promised to remain married to Mrs. Spires as long as she complied with thirteen "Articles of Continuance." *fn2 In the event of a divorce, seven "Articles of Dissolution" would control. These articles provided, in part, that neither party would pay any child support or alimony, and that Mr. Spires would have sole custody of the children with absolute power to determine Mrs. Spires' visitation rights.
On March 22, 1994, Mrs. Spires left the marital home. That same day, she drafted a handwritten letter declaring her intent to dissolve the marriage, granting Mr. Spires "sole proprietorship" of all real property, retaining to herself only selected articles of clothing "and other miscellaneous items," and relinquishing "all custody and parental rights and authority . . . ." The letter concluded with a statement that it was "mastered [sic] devoid of undue duress" and that Mrs. Spires "only desire[d] to pursue a new and different life alone."
Several months later, Mr. Spires filed a complaint seeking a divorce and permanent custody of the children. Mrs. Spires filed an answer and counterclaim, also seeking a decree of divorce, custody of the children, child support, equitable distribution of personal property, and an equitable interest in a Maryland home which Mr. Spires co-owned with his alleged mistress. A few days later, Mr. Spires filed a motion to enforce the marital and separation agreements. Mrs. Spires filed an opposition, claiming that the agreements were signed without full disclosure of Mr. Spires' interest in the Maryland property. *fn3
The case went to trial before a judge of the Superior Court, and upon its conclusion the judge awarded interim custody of the children to Mrs. Spires. The judge ruled that a final determination would be made after the completion of a home study by the Family Branch of the court's Social Services Division and psychological testing conducted by Washington Assessment and Therapy Services ("WATS").
Joyce Bradford, a court probation officer, performed the home study. In her evaluative summary, Ms. Bradford recommended that custody of the three children be awarded to Mrs. Spires. Although Mr. Spires presented the reports of two other therapists which contained claims of child abuse made against Mrs. Spires by Delanta, Ms. Bradford found the allegations unfounded, malicious, motivated by a desire to defame Mrs. Spires, and deliberately concocted to influence the court proceedings. In her testimony at a hearing on November 15, 1995, Ms. Bradford stated that the child abuse allegations were not supported by her interviews with the children and their teachers at Gibbs Elementary School. She found it highly unlikely, given Delanta's prior history of abuse (by his biological mother), that he would be able to mask the abuse described in the therapists' reports. Ms. Bradford further stated that Delanta's "overall demeanor" indicated to her that he was merely "reciting information that had been given to him" by someone else. None of the other children mentioned any incidents of abuse involving Mrs. Spires. On the basis of her investigation, Ms. Bradford opined that "the children [were] being given negative information in order to legitimize Mr. Spires' individual claims."
The wishes of the children were inconclusive. Myles III said that he wanted to live with his father, Paul preferred living with his mother, and Lorenzo did not state a preference. Ms. Bradford testified that the children were "bonded" and had a very close relationship with their half-brother Delanta. According to Ms. Bradford, the best solution to the custody issue would be a joint ...