The Natural Parent Presumption and the Third-Party Action

October 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

What is the burden of proof on a third-party who is seeking to remove custody from a natural parent? It’s an important question in these days when we are seeing increasing numbers of parents who are abdicating their roles to others, and parents who are unfit to have custody of their children.

Denise Irle and David Foster were not married, but they were parents of two children, Britney and Chase. David was the caretaker of the children, but he died. Patty and Lavirl Foster, David’s parents, petitioned the court for custody of the children. Denise and the Fosters entered into an agreed order under which Denise was to have custody of Britney and the Fosters would have custody of Chase.

Shortly after entry of the agreed order DHS removed Britney from Denise’s home, and the Fosters again filed to get custody of the child. Following a hearing, the chancellor ruled that the Fosters had overcome the natural-parent presumption, and Britney’s best interest would be in the care of the grandparents. Denise appealed, claiming that the chancellor erred by not finding a material change in circumstances. The COA affirmed, and the MSSC granted cert.

In an opinion rendered October 8, 2015, in Irle v. Foster, the court took the opportunity to clarify the law:

¶7. Whatever doubt there may be about the grandparents’ burden, it is universally understood and accepted that a natural parent seeking to modify custody must demonstrate some change in the circumstances that were presented to the chancellor that led to the previous decree, and must show that the changed circumstances are material.

¶8. But thirty-five years ago in Thomas v. Purvis, this Court stated that “[t]he principle that there must be a material change of circumstances which adversely affects a child’s welfare before a custody decree may be modified only applies between parents of the child.” For two reasons, we find this sweeping statement needs clarification and correction.

¶9. First, Thomas cited Rodgers v. Rodgers as authority for the broad proposition that a material change in circumstances must be demonstrated only in cases involving natural parents. But nothing this Court said in Rodgers supports this proposition. The chancellor in that case—after concluding that a material change in circumstances had occurred, but without considering the natural-parent presumption—modified an original divorce decree to transfer custody of a minor child from the child’s natural mother to the child’s paternal grandparents. The mother appealed, arguing that she enjoyed the natural-parent presumption, and that the grandparents had presented insufficient evidence to rebut that presumption.

¶10. This Court agreed with the mother, recognizing that a natural parent may not be deprived of custody in favor of a third party unless the third party rebuts the natural-parent presumption by clear and convincing evidence.10 The Rogers Court certainly did not intend to place a burden on a natural parent that it did not place on third parties, thereby making it more difficult for the natural parent to prevail in a custody battle. Stated another way, if a natural parent is required to demonstrate a material change in circumstances in order to win custody, then certainly a third party has at least that same burden.

¶11. Importantly, the Rodgers Court reversed solely because the grandparents failed to rebut the natural-parent presumption, and it never considered or discussed whether the grandparents did or did not have an additional burden to show a material change in circumstances.

¶12. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for natural parents to engage in numerous custody battles. But rarely do third parties—such as grandparents—attempt more than once to take custody from natural parents. This led to the second error in the Thomas Court’s reasoning, which was that it had failed to consider that there would be rare cases—such as the one before us today—where the third parties seeking to take custody from natural parents already had been before the court in a previous custody battle. So, while the logic is obvious that the material-change-in-circumstances test does not apply to third parties appearing for the first time before the chancery court, the same cannot be said where, as here, grandparents previously have been before the court on the very issue of who should have custody. Stated another way, grandparents who already have been before the chancery court in an attempt to remove custody from a natural parent may not reappear before the same chancery court, seeking a change in custody based on the same evidence and circumstances as existed when they first appeared.

¶13. So we hold that in cases involving a third party and a natural parent—where the third party has been before the court in a previous custody dispute over the child—the material change-in-circumstances test applies. A third party attempting to take custody from a natural parent under those circumstances is required to overcome the natural-parent presumption and to show a material change in circumstances from the previous decree.

¶14. Said differently, to obtain custody, the Fosters had to prove: (1) that a material change in circumstances had occurred since they last appeared before the chancellor; (2) that the natural-parent presumption had been rebutted; and (3) that the best interests of the child would be served by granting them custody. The chancellor applied this standard and credible evidence supported his judgment.

[All of the case citations are in footnotes which are omitted here because they are too tedious to copy and paste separately into this text]

So the rule now is that third parties who have previously attempted to obtain custody by court order must prove what is set out in ¶14 in order to modify custody in a later attempt. The upshot of the rule is that it prevents third parties from relitigating facts that have already been presented.

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