The Better Home Argument for Custody
June 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
In the recent case of In re Guardianship of C.B.F., decided May 8, 2018, the COA confronted the argument that the natural-parent presumption had been rebutted because the grandfather had proven that he could provide a better home for the child than could the mother. Judge Griffis addressed the issue for a unanimous court:
¶35. Although not specifically asserted, it appears Paul claims the chancellor erroneously concluded that he failed to rebut the natural-parent presumption by clear and convincing evidence. We disagree.
¶36. The natural-parent presumption “may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence that (1) the parent has abandoned the child; (2) the parent has deserted the child; (3) the parent’s conduct is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child; or (4) the parent is unfit, mentally or otherwise, to have custody.” Wilson v. Davis, 181 So. 3d 991, 995 (¶7) (Miss. 2016). Additionally, the presumption “may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence that actual or probable, serious physical or psychological harm or detriment will occur to the child if custody is placed with the natural parent, such that granting custody to the third party is substantially necessary to prevent such probable harm.” Id. at 995-96 (¶8). “Such a finding must prevent probable harm to the child, and not simply find that the third party can provide the child with different or arguably ‘better’ things.” Id. at 997 (¶8). “If the natural parent presumption is rebutted, the court may then proceed to determine whether an award of custody to the challenging party will serve the child’s best interests.” Id. at 995 (¶7).
¶37. Paul does not challenge the chancellor’s findings regarding each factor. Instead, Paul claims that “[r]igid adherence [to proving one of the four factors] placed [Carter] in a circumstance which is clearly not in his best interests.” See id. at (¶8) (noting “that the rigid adherence to proving one of the four precise factors to rebut the natural parent presumption may, in very limited and exceptional circumstances, place a child in a circumstance that is clearly not in his or her best interests”). However, as noted by the GAL, simply because Paul may offer a more suitable home for Carter is not enough to rebut the natural-parent presumption. Indeed, the chancellor found there was no evidence that “actual or probable, serious physical or psychological harm or detriment w[ould] occur if the custody of Carter [wa]s placed with Hollee.” [Emphasis mine]
Not a whole lot to chew on there, but I wanted to highlight the principle that even though most grandparents can provide a nicer home, more material pleasures, and a more comfortable life, that is not enough to overcome the natural parent presumption. There must be a showing by clear and convincing evidence of one or more of the four Wilson v. Davis factors, or that serious harm to the child will result from placement with the natural parent.
We are seeing more and more situations like the facts in this case in which the natural parents live with their parents, or leave a child with their parents intermittently, or abandon the child entirely. In most of these cases, the grandparents become de facto parents to the child, and they become quite attached to the youngster. It can become a real tug-of-war when the natural parent shows up and demands to have the child back.