Third-Party Custody with a Twist

October 30, 2019 § 2 Comments

When the Ballards, Candice and Marshall, were divorced from each other, the chancellor awarded custody to Marshall’s parents based on hearsay evidence. The MSSC reversed and remanded in Ballard v. Ballard, 255 So. 3d 126 (Miss. 2017).

On remand the chancellor awarded custody of the parties’ three children to Marshall. The catch is that Marshall is not the biological father of the youngest child, Jill, who was the product of a marital-separation affair. Candice appealed, arguing that she should have prevailed as to Jill based on the natural-parent presumption.

The MSSC affirmed in Ballard v. Ballard, decided August 29, 2019. Justice Beam wrote for the court:

¶12. … [Candice] argues that Marshall’s having acted in loco parentis for Jill was not enough to overcome the natural-parent presumption with regard to Candice’s custody of Jill. [Fn omitted] Candice correctly states that “[t]he law recognizes that parents are the natural guardians of their children, and ‘it is presumed that it is in the best interest of a child to remain with the natural parent as opposed to a third party.’” Davis v. Vaughn, 126 So. 3d 33, 37 (Miss. 2013) (quoting In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock and Hamby v. Leverock, 23 So. 3d 424, 429 (Miss. 2009)).

However, the presumption in favor of the parent 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.” Id. (quoting Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (Miss. 2012)). “If the natural-parent presumption is successfully 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. (citing Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46).

Id. (quoting Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (Miss. 2012)). “If the natural-parent presumption is successfully 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. (citing Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46).

¶13. Candice contends that this case is controlled by In re Waites v. Ritchie, 152 So. 3d 306 (Miss. 2014). In Waites, the mother sought to modify a custody agreement. Id. at 307. She subsequently notified T.J., her child’s biological father who had joined her petition seeking custody. Id. Although her husband, Scott, had cared for the child from the beginning, the chancellor excluded Scott from the Albright consideration because he was not a natural parent; the chancellor awarded full custody to the mother. Id. However, the chancellor allowed Scott and T.J. visitation. Id. Scott appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that Scott should have been considered on equal footing with the natural parents. Id. The mother and T.J. filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which this Court granted. Id. This Court found that the chancellor had properly excluded Scott from consideration. Id.

¶14. Candice further argues that the chancellor erroneously relied on a Court of Appeals case, Welton v. Westmoreland, 180 So. 3d 738 (Miss. Ct. App. 2015), to support awarding Marshall custody of Jill. In Welton, the natural father sought a modification of custody of his daughter Alexice and subsequently amended his complaint to seek custody of his daughter Justice. Id. at 740. Although Daniel was not Justice’s biological father, she believed he was until she was twelve years old. Id. Her biological father abandoned her and, after her birth, had never made an attempt to see her. Id. While Daniel knew he was not Justice’s biological father, he raised her like she was his own from the time she was four months old. Id. Further, Justice’s mother requested that Justice retain Daniel’s last name. Id.

¶15. In determining custody of Justice, the court acknowledged that,

[i]n general, the natural parent presumption precludes a court from granting custody to a “third party” over the objection of a natural parent absent clear and convincing evidence that the natural parent has abandoned or deserted the child, has engaged in immoral conduct harmful to the child, or is an unfit parent. Id. at 744. “The chancellor did not find that any of the grounds for overcoming the natural parent presumption had been established,” but he did find that, “on the ‘unique’ facts of this case, Daniel ‘stands in the place of a natural parent for purposes of custody of Justice.’”Id.

¶16. Welton relied upon two Supreme Court cases, Griffith v. Pell and J.P.M. v. T.D.M., for guidance. While the facts in Pell and J.P.M. vary slightly from the facts in Welton, the Court of Appeals appropriately extended the reasoning in those cases to apply to Welton, and, we find that the same principles apply to the present case. In Pell, as discussed in Welton, this Court held that “a husband who learned during divorce proceedings that he was not the biological father of a child born just prior to the marriage could be granted visitation and, custody over the objections of his wife (the child’s mother).” Id. at 745 (citing Griffith v. Pell, 881 So. 2d 184, 185-87 (Miss. 2004)). Moreover, as discussed in Welton, in J.P.M., this Court “affirmed an order granting custody to a husband who had learned during divorce proceedings that he was not the biological father of a child born to the marriage” because “[h]e was deemed the ‘father in fact’ and was not required to present additional evidence to rebut the natural parent presumption.” Id. (citing J.P.M. v. T.D.M., 932 So. 2d 760, 762-70 (Miss. 2006)).

¶17. This Court reasoned in both Pell and J.P.M. that the natural-parent presumption had been overcome based on several facts:

(1) the husbands stood in loco parentis; (2) they had supported, cared for, and treated the child as their own; (3) they could have been required to pay child support (“with the burden should go the benefit”); and (4) the biological fathers were not really in the picture: the one in Pell had disclaimed any interest in the child and had agreed to relinquish his parental rights, while the one in J.P.M. could not even be determined conclusively. Id. (quoting Waites, 152 So. 3d at 312).

¶18. In Welton, the Court of Appeals found that the facts necessary to overcome the natural-parent presumption were present but questioned whether the facts were sufficient to place Daniel in the position of a natural parent for purposes of Justice’s custody because Daniel had not been defrauded like the fathers in Pell and J.P.M. Id. at 747.

¶19. Welton held, “although the relevant Supreme Court decisions do not directly address the unique facts of this case, Pell’s reasoning and Waites’s emphasis on whether the biological father is ‘really in the picture’ are instructive and should control.” Id. “[T]he mere existence of a biological father who abandoned a child years ago should not be used ‘to defeat an existing father-child relationship when [that] biological father [is not] seeking to assume care, support and nurturance of the child.’” Id. (alterations in original) (quoting Pell, 881 So. 2d at 187). The mother led Justice to believe that Daniel was her father and confirmed that Justice’s biological father had abandoned her at birth. Therefore, the Welton court affirmed the chancellor, who had found “that Pell and subsequent Supreme Court decisions provided legal authority to grant physical custody of Justice to Daniel.” Id. at 748.

¶20. Welton logically extended the principles articulated in Pell and J.P.M.. The unique facts of Welton—allowing an in loco parentis figure to have custody—also are present here. There was no question that Marshall acted in loco parentis to Jill. Further, the trial court’s in loco parentis finding was neither raised as an issue on appeal nor was it overturned by the appellate court in Ballard.

¶21. Marshall always supported, cared for, and treated Jill as his own child, even though he knew she was not his biological child. Candice concedes that Marshall has always provided for Jill, as he did for John and Jane. She admitted even that Marshall is the only father Jill has ever known. Further, no evidence was presented that Candice sought support of Jill from the biological father. In fact, the biological father received notice of the hearing and did not attend, nor has he ever attempted to visit or to support Jill. It is clear that the biological father is absent.

¶22. Lastly, Candice argues that Welton is both distinguishable and predates this Court’s ruling in Miller v. Smith, 229 So. 3d 100 (Miss. 2017). This Court finds, however, that the facts of Miller are dissimilar. There, the Court found that the circumstances did not give Miller in loco parentis status. Miller, 229 So. 3d at 105. Miller had been sentenced to prison for eighteen months when the minor child, Smitty, was only a few months old. Id. at 104. After prison, Miller did not remain a constant in Smitty’s life. Id. Miller provided no financial assistance to Smitty, nor did he visit Smitty while his mother was in prison during 2012 and 2013. Id. Therefore, Miller did not rebut the natural-parent presumption, and the Court found substantial evidence in the record to support the chancellor’s conclusion that Miller did not stand in loco parentis. Id. at 104-105.

¶23. Accordingly, this Court finds that the chancellor appropriately held that custody of Jill could be awarded to Marshall pending an Albright analysis.

Justice Maxwell added a specially concurring opinion, joined by Randolph, Beam, Chamberlin, and Griffis, that concludes, “Here, I concur with the majority to the extent it backs away from the strong language in Waites and reaffirms Pell and T.D.M.’s holding that, under unique circumstances like these, a nonbiological parent’s in loco parentis status can be used to reach an Albright custody analysis without having to first rebut the natural-parent presumption.”

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