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Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Re Jackson v. Rowe: Grandparent v. Bio-Mom - Who Wins?


Before we start, here is my ever-proper lawyer disclaimer: without knowing the SPECIFIC details of the custody proceeding, my opinions are merely based on my legal experience. Thus, I am merely speculating and not giving legal advice.

The main issue I see revolving around the guardianship of Jackson's three (3) children (two whose biological mom is Rowe, and the third whose bio-mother is unknown), is grandparent rights v. biological parents rights.

If it were that simple, custody would go to Debbie Rowe. Hands down. Because Bio-Parent always wins over Grandparent (or third party).

Currently, the mainstream case governing grandparent visitation rights is the Supreme Court court case Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000). In that case, the unmarried mother and father of two children broke up and father moved out and in with his parents (grampa and gramma Troxel). The children got quite close to Gramma and Grampa during this brief period, and then father committed suicide two years later.

After father died, the mother stepped in and limited Gramma and Grampa Troxel's visitation to once a month. The Troxels decided to fight back and petition the Court for more visits. At that time, the Washington state law had a statute that basically allowed any third party to have visits if the visits were in the "best interests" of the children. So the Court ordered more visitation for Troxels - much more than what the mother wanted.

Mom appealed and won. The Appeals court held that third parties have no standing (that is, no power to challenge) unless there is already a custody proceeding pending. (Basically skirting the issue of whether visitation was lawful.)

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Appeals court, but on different grounds. They said that biological parents have a FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT of due process under the 14th amendment to make decisions for their children. Specifically, "parents have a right to limit visitation of their children with third persons" and between parents and judges, "parents should be the ones to choose whether to expose their children to certain people or ideas".

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. They held that parents have a substantive due process fundamental right under the 14th Amendment to solely make the decisions regarding the care, custody and control of their children and, absent a showing of parental unfitness, the state cannot interfere with those decisions. It was irrelevant whether the children would benefit from more time with their grandparents or that such visitation would be in their “best interests” as the state had no right to interfere in the first instance.

After this ruling, many states have enacted "Troxel" statutes. In California, specific code sections codify California’s strong policy preference for the rights of parents over non-parents:

Family Code 3040 states:
a) Custody should be granted in the following order of preference according to the best interest of the child as provided in Sections 3011 and 3020:

(1) To both parents jointly pursuant to Chapter 4 (commencing with Section 3080) or to either parent. In making an order granting custody to either parent, the court shall consider, among other factors, which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent and continuing contact with the noncustodial parent, consistent with Section 3011 and 3020, and shall not prefer a parent as custodian because of that parent's sex. The court, in its discretion, may require the parents to submit to the court a plan for the implementation of the custody order.

(2) If to neither parent, to the person or persons in whose home the child has been living in a wholesome and stable environment.

(3) To any other person or persons deemed by the court to be suitable and able to provide adequate and proper care and guidance for the child.

(b) This section establishes neither a preference nor a presumption for or against joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or sole custody, but allows the court and the family the widest discretion to choose a parenting plan that is in the best interest of the child.

Family Code 3041 states:

a) Before making an order granting custody to a person or persons other than a parent, over the objection of a parent, the court shall make a finding that granting custody to a parent would be detrimental to the child and that granting custody to the nonparent is required to serve the best interest of the child. Allegations that parental custody would be detrimental to the child, other than a statement of that ultimate fact, shall not appear in the pleadings. The court may, in its discretion, exclude the public from the hearing on this issue.

In California, if a custody proceeding is already pending, the non-parent, grandparent, or stepparent, must demonstrate the visitation requested is in the best interest of the minor and that the minor will not suffer detriment if the non-parent visitation request is granted. Under Family Code §3I00, the family law court has discretion to grant “reasonable visitation rights… to any other person [a non-parent] having an interest in the welfare of the child.”

If, however both parents object to visitation by the non-parent, there is a rebuttable presumption affecting the burden of proof that the requested visitation is not in the child’s best interest.

If one parent passes away, California Family Code §3102 governs, and states,
(a) If either parent of an unemancipated minor child is deceased, the children, siblings, parents, and grandparents of the deceased parent may be granted reasonable visitation with the child during the child's minority upon a finding that the visitation would be in the best interest of the minor child.

(b) In granting visitation pursuant to this section to a person other than a grandparent of the child, the court shall consider the amount of personal contact between the person and the child before the application for the visitation order.

California has its own Troxel case. In Zasueta v. Zasueta (2002), 102 Cal.App.4th 1242, during the divorce, Father committed suicide. Father’s parents petitioned for visitation. Mother opposed the request.

The trial judge (a grandfather himself of seven grandchildren) found Mother unfit based on the fact that she opposed grandparent visitation. Then the trial court, without good reason, held it was in the best interests of all children to see their grandparents, stating among other decidedly inappropriate remarks, that it is the job of all grandparents to “spoil their grandchildren.”

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding the trial court’s decision plainly ignored and therefore violated Troxel and violated Mother’s 14th Amendment fundamental right to raise her children, absent unfitness, as she pleases. In conclusion, the Court stated: “At the very least, Troxel teaches that trial courts must resist the temptation to personalize the proceedings and to substitute personal judgments for the decisions made by fit parents regarding visitation.”

SOOOOOO ...where does that leave Michael Jackson's children? Debbie Rowe is the undisputed bio-mom of two children. Under the statutes, her rights would trump Gramma Katherine's rights. The plot thickens, however - because she had previously terminated her parental rights, but the Court then reinstated them in 2006. How will this play out in the facts?

FINALLY, what about Blanket? Rowe is NOT the bio-mom of the third child. Thus, the statutes favoring bio-parents will not apply here. There IS, however, the inclination of courts to keep siblings together.

Ah, what a fascinating life and legacy he left us....


Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott said...

What a mess he left behind!! But the boy could dance!! Great blog- very informative and entertaining. By the way, what's for dinner?

Elison Duncan said...

14th Amendment right to children security. It is depend on care, custody and control also, but depend on case.

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