Desertion and its Proof

March 18, 2020 § Leave a comment

The COA’s decision in a recent case is a reminder that overcoming the natural-parent presumption requires clear and convincing evidence.

Judge Tindell wrote the 9-1 opinion that reversed the trial court ruling in Owens v. Owens, handed down December 17, 2019:

¶6. In child-custody cases, the best interest of the child is the paramount concern. Burge v. Burge, 223 So. 3d 888, 899 (¶37) (Miss. Ct. App. 2017). “In custody battles between a natural parent and a third party, it is presumed that it is in the child’s best interest to remain with his or her natural parent.” Id. (quoting Smith v. Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (¶8) (Miss. 2012)). Thus, a “third party must first clearly rebut the natural-parent presumption or preference” to receive custody. Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46 (¶8). As our caselaw establishes:

[T]he natural-parent presumption may only 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.

In re Waites, 152 So. 3d 306, 311 (¶14) (Miss. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). Where a third party successfully rebuts the presumption, the chancellor must conduct an Albright analysis to determine if third-party custody serves the child’s best interest. Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46 (¶8).

¶7. Here, the chancellor concluded that clear and convincing evidence demonstrated Farrah had deserted Tiffany. “Desertion is defined as for[]saking one’s duty as well as a breaking away from or breaking off associations with some matter involving a legal or moral obligation or some object of loyalty . . . .” Neely, 194 So. 3d at 156 (¶21) (internal quotation mark omitted); see also Smith, 97 So. 3d at 48 (¶16) (explaining that desertion occurs when one forsakes “a person, institution, cause, etc., having a moral or legal claim upon one” or “forsake[s] one’s duty, one’s post[,] or one’s party”).

¶8. In Smith, the Mississippi Supreme Court considered a chancellor’s award of primary physical custody of a minor boy to his maternal grandmother and step-grandfather. Smith, 97 So. 3d at 44 (¶1). The Smith court concluded the record supported the chancellor’s finding that the mother’s desertion of her son had overcome the natural-parent presumption. Id. at 49 (¶17). Following the son’s birth in June 2003, he and his mother lived with the maternal grandparents in Mississippi. Id. at 45 (¶3). Over the next three years, the mother attended college. Id. The mother “sometimes visited” her son on weekends during the first three years of his life, but her visits eventually grew more infrequent. Id. In April 2006, the mother got married and moved to Washington D.C. to live with her new husband. Id. About a month later, the son also moved to Washington D.C. to live with his mother and her new husband. Id. In June 2006, however, the mother and her new husband separated, and the son returned to Mississippi. Id. Over the next few months, the son spent time in both Washington D.C. and Mississippi until he permanently returned to Mississippi in November 2006. Id. In 2007, the mother “sporadically” visited her son in Mississippi, and in April or May 2007, she gave the grandparents medical guardianship over her son. Id. In 2008, the mother’s visits with her son continued to grow “more infrequent,” and in March 2009, she moved to Arizona with a man she later married. Id. In granting third-party custody to the grandparents, the chancellor in Smith stated that the mother “had ‘failed to exercise her parental rights and fulfill her parental responsibilities’ by her ‘long and continuous absences’ from . . . [her son]. Consequently, the Smiths [(the grandparents)] had raised . . . [the grandson] virtually his entire life . . . .” Id. at 46 (¶4).

¶9. Citing Smith, the chancellor in the present case found that Farrah’s actions also constituted desertion. Specifically, the chancellor here stated:

Farrah’s long and continuous absences, especially in the context of a baby as young as the one in the instant case, along with her [(Farrah’s)] failure to exercise her parental rights, failure to financially support and care for the child[,] and her failure to fulfill her parental responsibilities, caused the child’s grandparents [(the Owenses)] to step in as primary caretakers.

¶10. Upon review, however, we conclude that the record in the present case fails to support a finding of desertion by clear and convincing evidence. At the time the Owenses filed their February 9, 2017 emergency petition for guardianship, Tiffany was only four months old and
had only lived in the Owenses’ home for two months. In addition, evidence reflected that until the Owenses received temporary custody of Tiffany, Farrah had been constantly present in her daughter’s life and had consistently contributed to Tiffany’s care and well being.

¶11. When the chancellor held the two-day hearing in November 2017 on the Owenses’ guardianship petition, Tiffany was one year old. Farrah testified about how often she had visited her daughter since her parents had received custody of Tiffany eight months earlier. Farrah stated that her parents initially allowed her to move back to their house following the February 2017 court hearing until they kicked her out a few weeks later. After leaving her parents’ home, Farrah stated that she visited with Tiffany around twenty times before she again moved back into her parents’ home in August 2017. During the time she lived with her parents in August 2017, Farrah testified that she was able to see Tiffany on a daily basis and that she “took care of Tiffany the whole time . . . [she] was there . . . .” According to Farrah, she was the one who mostly “fed . . . [Tiffany], bathed her, put her to bed, [and] fixed her breakfast.”

¶12. Farrah stated that her parents once again kicked her out of their home in September 2017 after they learned she had hired an attorney to represent her in the guardianship proceedings. Farrah testified that she still tried to visit Tiffany but that her parents refused to let her visit their house during weekdays while her father was at work. As a result, Farrah stated that she only visited with Tiffany once in the month leading up to the November 2017 hearing. Farrah also stated that she constantly tried to call and text her parents to request phone visits with Tiffany and pictures and videos of Tiffany. Farrah claimed, however, that her parents usually failed to answer her phone calls and text messages.

¶13. Farrah also testified that in September 2017 she obtained a job at a produce and firewood business. Farrah stated that she worked at the business the first part of the day and then babysat her bosses’ four children in the afternoons. Farrah testified that she had secured housing for herself and Tiffany and that she had just finished decorating Tiffany’s bedroom. If granted custody of Tiffany, Farrah testified that her employers had agreed to allow her to take Tiffany to work with her.

¶14. Unlike in Smith, the present record fails to show that Farrah forsook her duty to Tiffany through “long and continuous absences,” a “failure to exercise her parental rights,” or a “failure to fulfill her parental responsibilities.” See Smith, 97 So. 3d at 48 (¶16). Evidence instead reflected that Farrah consistently was or attempted to be present over the first year of Tiffany’s life. The record also contained evidence that during the periods when Farrah lived under the same roof as Tiffany,she helped to care for Tiffany and to provide for Tiffany’s needs. And during the times when she did not live under the same roof as Tiffany, Farrah testified about her repeated attempts to visit with her daughter. In addition, by the time of the November hearing, Farrah had not only obtained a job to financially support herself and Tiffany but had also obtained housing and arranged childcare. Based on such evidence, we conclude the chancellor manifestly erred by finding that the Owenses rebutted the natural-parent presumption with clear and convincing proof of desertion.

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.”

A Return to Basics in Third-Party Custody

January 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

If you’ve done any amount of third-party child custody work in the past several years, you can’t be blamed for scratching your head in bewilderment over how to advise your client about the limits and parameters of the natural-parent presumption.

The presumption is that the best interest of the child is served by being in the custody of a natural parent, rather than a third party. The presumption may be overcome 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. Davis v. Vaughn, 126 So.3d 33, 37 (Miss. 2013).

The problem is defining exactly what kind of conduct satisfies the Davis v. Vaughn test. A recent MSSC case defines that for us.

Concetter Davis and James Wilson had a child, Sha, born April 20, 2003. James filed a paternity and custody action in which he was determined to be the father, and Concetter was awarded custody. Concetter died in 2011, and her family refused to turn Sha over to James. He filed an action in chancery Court, and the chancellor awarded custody to Concetter’s mother, Perlean Davis. James appealed, and the COA reversed and remanded for a finding whether the natural-parent presumption had been rebutted. On remand, the chancellor did not take further evidence, but rather made new findings of fact based on the existing record, again awarding custody to Perlean. James again appealed, and the COA affirmed. On cert, the MSSC reversed and remanded.

In the case of Wilson v. Davis, handed down January 7, 2016, the MSSC laid out in particular what is required to be shown in order to overcome the natural-parent presumption. Justice King wrote for the court (several lengthy footnotes omitted):

¶8. Requiring clear and convincing evidence to rebut the natural parent presumption in one of the four manners listed is important to “honor[] and protect[] the fundamental right of natural parents to rear their children.” Id. However, this Court takes the opportunity to note 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. And, as is clearly established, the best interests of the child is the lodestar in custody cases. This Court has recognized this principle in the past, stating that “[i]n order to overcome this presumption, there must be a clear showing that the parent is unfit by reason of immoral conduct, abandonment, or other circumstances which clearly indicate that the best interest of the child will be served in the custody of another.” Moody [v. Moody], 211 So. 2d [842] at 844 [(Miss. 1968)] (emphasis added). With this decision, we mark a return to that principle. The natural parent 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. In other words, if demonstrable, clear and convincing evidence exists that the child will suffer probable harm and detriment in the custody of the natural parent, the court may find that the natural parent presumption is rebutted, and consequently proceed to a determination of whether a custody award to the challenging party will be in the child’s best interests. 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. See Moody, 211 So. 2d at 844 (“The fact that someone else may be in a better position to furnish the child a larger and more convenient home in which to live does not necessarily mean it would be in the best interest of the child to take it from a parent who is otherwise fit to have the custody of the child.”). This “exceptional circumstances” finding means more than that a child’s bests interests may be served by third party custody; it “requires proof of serious physical or psychological harm or a substantial likelihood of such harm.” Watkins v. Nelson, 748 A.2d 558, 565 (N.J. 2000). More than simply best interests is required, because if that “is the only criterion, then a judge may take children from their parents because the judge personally disproves of the parents’ limited means.” Id. at 567 (internal quotations and alterations omitted). By requiring a much higher threshold than simply best interests, the exceptional circumstances finding “is designed to reduce or minimize judicial opportunity to engage in social engineering in custody cases involving third parties.” Id. It is important not to devolve into a less stringent standard because such would easily “evolve into a ‘fitness contest’ whose outcome will depend on the whims of the trial court.” Id. at 568. “The standard that we adopt has as its benchmark the welfare of the child while at the same time protecting parental rights.” Id. [Emphasis added]

¶9. If the court finds that custody should be granted to the third party under this standard, it is required to make very specific findings of fact on the record. We again emphasize that this is a high threshold. However, we believe this standard will allow chancery courts to reconcile the fundamental rights of natural parents to raise their own children with the primary concern in a custody case, the best interests of the child. See Davis, 126 So. 3d at 38 (“Judges often are faced with the difficult task of removing a child from a loving home in deference to a natural parent’s custodial rights. Even so, the law does not allow parental rights to supercede [sic] the best interests of the child.”).

¶10. Turning to this case, we find that the chancellor erred for several reasons. The original hearing, conducted in the vein of a modification of custody, was held in January 2012. In April 2013, the Court of Appeals reversed the chancery court, finding that it had applied the incorrect standard and had not determined whether the natural parent presumption was rebutted. In July 2013, after a year and a half had passed with a great potential for changed circumstances, and without holding a hearing in which both parties were on notice of the issue of rebutting the natural parent presumption, the chancery court simply amended its original order. The chancery court should have held a hearing and received and considered evidence regarding whether the natural parent presumption was rebutted. See Yelverton, 26 So. 3d at 1055, 1057.

¶11. Furthermore, the evidence found by the chancellor was clearly insufficient to rebut the natural parent presumption. First, the court relied on evidence that James dates and marries women much younger than himself, and that these relationships overlap and include adultery. This Court has noted that marital fault, including adultery, may not be used as a sanction in custody awards. Brekeen v. Brekeen, 880 So. 2d 280, 287 (Miss. 2004). While this is not a divorce action, if adultery may not be sanctioned by denial of custody in a divorce action, it certainly follows that such behavior will be difficult to justify as sufficient to rebut the natural parent presumption. While some of James’s relationship behavior may cause concern, no evidence whatsover was adduced that such behavior has had any actual detrimental effect on Sha, thus the evidence does not show that James’s conduct “is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child.” See Davis, 126 So. 3d at 37 (emphasis added). Additionally, James married his current wife before Concetter passed away and was still married and living with her at the time of the hearing. Indeed, the last extramarital affair and relationship with a younger woman noted by the chancellor were with James’s current wife, and began in approximately 2009, more than two years prior to the hearing. The chancellor made no findings that James was currently engaged in adulterous or immoral relationships, and moreover, made no findings that he was involved in any extramarital relationships that harmed or influenced Sha in any way. See Westbrook v. Oglesbee, 606 So. 2d 1142 (Miss. 1992) (where father and his wife drank alcohol, father used to take drugs but had passed random drug tests by his employer for the past six years, a paternal relative smoked marijuana in front of the child once, and father only had minimal contact with child prior to mother’s death, the Court found “a stronger case must be made against [the father] and matters of more current nature need to be shown to establish that he is unfit as a parent.”).

¶12. The chancellor also cited animosity between Concetter and Annette and James, including physical altercations, as reason to deny James custody. While certainly noteworthy, as it appears in the best interests of Sha to have her mother’s memory and her grief for her mother honored, Concetter has passed away, and there is thus no present danger of such animosity or confrontations. These facts are not sufficient to rebut the natural parent presumption, as they do not bear on James’s fitness or detrimental immorality, but they may be a consideration in a best interests analysis.

¶13. The chancellor also cited the anger issues of Annette’s two sons as a reason to rebut the natural parent presumption. Again, such issues are certainly of concern. Yet, the evidence indicated that neither Sha nor her stepsister had been injured or harmed by the boys. The evidence also showed that the parents were seeking intensive therapy to address the issues. Anger issues in the home of a natural parent that pose a potential danger to a child are certainly something a chancellor should examine in detail. However, in this case, the determination of harm was not based on any proof of actual or probable harm to Sha, but rather, based upon pure speculation on the part of the court. Thus, this is not an appropriate reason to find James unfit or so immoral as to rebut the natural parent presumption.

¶14. Because none of the facts found by the chancery court are sufficient to rebut the natural parent presumption, we must reverse the chancery court on this issue.

So, it takes clear and convincing evidence of probable serious harm or detriment to the child if placed with the natural parent, and placement with the third party is necessary to prevent that probable harm.

The footnotes in this case are chock-full of authority on third-party custody. The only reason I did not include them is that this post would have rivalled Gone With the Wind in length if I had.

This is the case I commented on previously for the proposition that on remand the trial court may rely on the previous record, or may take more evidence. That take, apparently, does not apply any longer in contested child custody cases, particularly third-party custody cases.

An Unusual In Loco Parentis Case

January 8, 2014 § 6 Comments

Only last month we discussed the MSSC decision in Vaughn v. Davis, which dealt with the rights of a natural parent as opposed to those of a party who has stood in the shoes of the parent and assumed parental responsibility, a status we refer to as in loco parentis. The court in that case said, “‘[t]he doctrine of in loco parentis does not, by itself, overcome the natural-parent presumption,’ although it may be a factor in determining whether the presumption has been rebutted [citation omitted].”

Vaughn was a case in which the maternal grandmother had acted in loco parentis toward the child after the death of the child’s mother. When the child’s father showed up to claim the child, the grandmother balked, and the litigation ensued. Since the father was not shown to have abandoned or deserted the child, and had not been guilty of unsuitable conduct, his rights trumped those of the grandmother. The fact pattern in Vaughn is fairly typical for these type cases.

How does the Vaughn rationale apply, however, in a case where the in loco parentis party believed in good faith that he was the father, but was later proven not to be when paternity was questioned, and DNA testing proved that the in loco parentis party was not the natural father?

That was the question before the COA in JSW vs. AWR and TJS, decided on December 3, 2013, less than a month after the MSSC decision in Vaughn.

In JWS, Jake and Ann married when Ann was pregnant. Vanessa was the first child born, followed by Brett, a year and a half later. Before she married Jake, Ann had a one-night stand with Tommie. Tommie believed he could be the father of Vanessa, but he took no action because he knew of Jake’s and Ann’s relationship.

In 2007, when Vanessa was nearly three years old, Tommie’s mother called and inquired whether Vanessa might be his child. Ann denied it, but Jake decided to have a DNA test, which ruled him out as the natural father. Jake and Vanessa decided that he would continue to raise Vanessa as his own.   

In 2009, Jake and Ann were divorced after five years of marriage. In the divorce, via PSA, the parties agreed that they would share physical custody, alternating weekly.

Less than a year after the divorce, the parties were back in court, fighting over custody and support. Before a hearing could be held in their contest, however, Tommie filed an action for an adjudication of paternity of Vanessa, and for custody, and visitation. A DNA test confirmed that Tommie was the natural father of Vanessa.

In his adjudication, the chancellor considered Jake and Tommie as the natural parents, and Jake as a third party. He found that, although Jake had acted in loco parentis, that alone was not enough to overcome the natural parent presumption. The chancellor awarded Ann custody, and Tommie visitation. Based on Jake’s in loco parentis status, the chancellor awarded him visitation commensurate with Tommie’s. 

Jake appealed. Judge Maxwell’s opinion, for a divided court, is somewhat lengthy for this blog, but I think it’s worth your time to read. Here are the pertinent parts:

¶18. This is certainly a unique custody dispute. More typically, the custody dispute is between the two natural parents or between a parent and non-parent, such as a grandparent. In a child-custody determination between two natural parents, the chancellor considers the factors under Albright to determine which natural parent custody should be awarded custody, based on the best interest of the child. Lucas v. Hendrix, 92 So. 3d 699, 705 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983)). However, in a child-custody determination between a natural parent and a third party, such as a grandparent, the law presumes that it is in the best interest of the child for the natural parent to have custody. Id. at 705-06 (¶17) (citing McKee v. Flynt, 630 So. 2d 44, 47 (Miss. 1993)); see Lorenz v. Strait, 987 So. 2d 427, 434 (¶41) (Miss. 2008) (holding that, because“[g]randparents have no legal right [to] custody of a grandchild, as against a natural parent,” the natural-parent presumption applies in custody cases between grandparents and natural parents).

¶19. The natural-parent presumption is “not unassailable.” In re Custody of Brown, 66 So.3d 726, 728 (¶10) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (citing Vaughn v. Davis, 36 So. 3d 1261, 1264 (¶10) (Miss. 2010)). But for the third party to rebut this presumption, he must clearly show “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.” In re Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46 (¶9) (citing Vaughn, 36 So. 3d at 1264-65 (¶¶10-13); In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock & Hamby, 23 So. 3d 424, 429-30 (¶20) (Miss. 2009); Carter v. Taylor, 611 So. 2d 874, 876 (Miss. 1992)).

¶20. In this case, applying precedents concerning custody determinations between a natural parent and a grandparent, the chancellor categorized Jake as a third party. And because the chancellor also found Jake could not show Anne or Tommie had abandoned or deserted Vanessa, acted so immorally as to be detrimental to Vanessa, or was otherwise unfit, the chancellor imposed the legal presumption that it was in Vanessa’s best interest for Anne or Tommie to be awarded custody.

¶21. But there is a body of more relevant cases dealing with this very scenario—when a husband acts under the assumption that he is the father of the child his wife bore. And in these cases, the doctrine of in loco parentis has been used to put the presumed father on equal footing with the natural parent.

II. In Loco Parentis

¶22. In Griffith v. Pell, 881 So. 2d 184, 185 (¶¶2-3) (Miss. 2004), it came to light during divorce proceedings that the husband was not the biological father of the child born to the marriage. The chancellor granted partial summary judgment to the wife, finding the husband had no right to custody of the child. Id. at (¶3). The supreme court reversed based on the doctrine of in loco parentis, which the court found clearly applied. Id. at 186 (¶6). The supreme court held: “Merely because another man was determined to be the minor child’s biological father does not automatically negate the father-daughter relationship held by [the husband] and the minor child.” Id. Further, the supreme court cited with approval other jurisdictions that have held full-blown parental rights do not spring merely from a biological connection. In these cases, the burden is on the biological father to show a sufficient relationship with the child to entitle him to parental rights. Id. at 186-87 (¶9). The burden is not, as the chancellor found in Jake’s case, on the husband to prove that the biological father’s natural-parent presumption has been rebutted.

¶23. In fact, two years after Pell, in J.P.M. v. T.D.M., 932 So. 2d 760, 768 (¶21) (Miss. 2006), the supreme court rejected the very reasoning the chancellor used in this case to exclude Jake as a potential custodial parent. Just as in Pell, during divorce proceedings, the wife revealed that her husband, who had been the primary caretaker of the child since the separation, was not the biological father. Yet this time, the chancellor awarded the husband custody as the “father in fact.” Id. at 762 (¶1).

¶24. On appeal, the wife asserted that, because her ex-husband was not the biological father, he should be considered a third party in their custody dispute. The wife asked the supreme court to apply the line of cases holding that a third party “can only obtain custody” upon showing the natural parent has either abandoned the child, the natural parent’s conduct is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child, or the natural parent is mentally or otherwise unfit for custody. Id. at 767-68 (¶20-21) (citing Keely v. Keely, 495 So. 2d 452 (Miss. 1986); Sellers v. Sellers, 638 So. 2d 481 (Miss. 1994)). But the supreme court found “the instantsituation distinguishable” because, in the cases the ex-wife cited, the third parties “were an aunt and a grandfather, respectively,” whereas in J.P.M., the ex-husband had been the child’s “‘legal father’ since her birth.” Id. at 768 (¶21). “Thus, he ha[d] existing legal rights and obligations that the third parties in [the cases the wife cited] did not.” Id.

¶25. The case the supreme court found instead controlled was Pell and its particular application of the doctrine of in loco parentis. J.P.M., 932 So. 2d at 768 (¶21) (citing Pell, 881 So. 2d 184). So the court found the chancellor, by awarding the husband custody, had reached the right result, using the wrong legal doctrine. While rejecting that the husband was the “father in fact,” the supreme court found he still had parental rights springing from the doctrine of in loco parentis, as applied in Pell. J.P.M., 932 So. 2d at 768 (¶21)

¶26. In J.P.M., Presiding Justice Cobb wrote a specially concurring opinion expressing her concern that in loco parentis was too broad a doctrine to apply to these scenarios. Id. at 779-85 (¶¶64-87) (Cobb, P.J., specially concurring). Because it is not just deceived husbands that may stand in loco parentis, Justice Cobb advocated using the more factually tailored doctrine of equitable estoppel or equitable fatherhood as justification for the rebuttal of the natural-parent presumption. Id.

¶27. Justice Cobb’s warning proved to be prophetic. Eight years later, in In re Smith, grandparents argued that because they stood in loco parentis, as that doctrine is defined, they stood on equal footing with the natural mother. In re Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46-47 (¶4). The supreme court rejected this argument, finding that “[t]he doctrine of in loco parentis does not, by itself, overcome the natural-parent presumption.” Id. at 47 (¶10). But the court clarified that it was not overruling Pell and J.P.M. Rather, those cases represented “very limited, unique situations” where “several facts” led to the rebuttal of the natural-parent presumption—the husbands’ standing in loco parentis being one of  them. In re Smith, 97 So. 3d at 47 (¶11). Because the husbands also “had supported, cared for, and treated the child[ren] as their own,” because they had been required to pay child support (“with the burden should go the benefit”), and because “the biological fathers were not really in the picture,” the natural-parent presumption had been overcome. Id.

¶28. Here, the chancellor expressly found Jake stood in loco parentis. He also found Jake supported, cared for, and treated Vanessa as his own, even after he learned he was not her biological father—an action the chancellor found “quite admirable.” In the divorce proceeding, Jake had been ordered to pay half of Vanessa’s day-care expenses, and the only reason he did not have to pay Anne child support was that he shared equal custody time and expenses with her. The only difference between this case and Pell and J.P.M. is that, in those cases, the natural father either disclaimed any rights to the child or could not be conclusively established. See In re Smith, 97 So. 3d at 47 (¶11).

¶29. Based on the chancellor’s own findings of fact, we find Jake is in that “very limited, unique situation” where Pell and J.P.M. control. Thus, the chancellor erred by instead applying the line of cases where a third party can only rebut the natural-parent presumption by showing the natural parents had abandoned or deserted their child or were detrimentally immoral or otherwise unfit.

¶30. Because we find Jake had overcome the natural-parent presumption, he should have been considered on equal footing with Anne and Tommie in the chancellor’s Albright analysis. We reverse the custody award and remand for the chancery court to conduct an Albright analysis that includes Jake as a potential custodial parent.

So the case travels back to the chancellor to add Jake into the Albright mix and make a determination as to custody among the three parents: two natural and one in loco.

In the meantime, the appellees’ attorneys have filed for rehearing, and either party unhappy with the COA’s ultimate decision will likely ask for cert on the issue. That would be welcome, because any clarity the courts can bring to this head-spinning area of our law would be a great relief.

A Primer on Third-Party Custody

December 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

The cases on third-party custody can be confusing in their own right, but when one adds into the mix the cases where third parties acting in loco parentis also claim custody, it can become downright confusing.

The MSSC case of Davis v. Vaughn, decided November 21, 2013, includes a welcome exposition on the subject that you just might want to save for future reference. It stands for the proposition that a third party’s in loco parentis status, standing alone, is not enough to overcome the natural-parent presumption. Here is the key language from Justice Kitchen’s opinion for a unanimous court:

¶10. We first address Davis’s assertion that parties standing in loco parentis should be able to seek custody of the child without having to prove that the natural parent has relinquished his or her parental rights. The 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.” In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock and Hamby, 23 So. 3d 424, 429 (Miss. 2009) (citing K.D.F. v. J.L.H., 933 So. 2d 971, 980 (Miss. 2006)). See also Miss. Code Ann. § 93-13-1 (Rev. 2013) (“The father and mother are the joint natural guardians of their minor children and are equally charged with their care, nurture, welfare and education . . . . If either father or mother die or be incapable of acting, the guardianship devolves upon the surviving parent.”). 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.” Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46 (citing Vaughn II, 36 So. 3d at 1264-65 (Miss. 2010); Leverock, 23 So. 3d at 429-30; Carter v. Taylor, 611 So. 2d 874, 876 (Miss. 1992)). 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 In re Custody of M.A.G., 859 So. 2d 1001, 1004 (Miss. 2003); Logan v. Logan, 730 So. 2d 1124, 1127 (Miss. 1998)).

¶11. A person in loco parentis is one who stands in place of a parent, having assumed the status and obligations of a parent. Favre v. Medders, 241 Miss. 75, 81, 128 So. 2d 877, 879 (Miss. 1961). “Any person who takes a child of another into his home and treats it as a member of his family, providing parental supervision, support and education, as if it were his own child, is said to stand in loco parentis.” W.R. Fairchild Constr. Co. v. Owens, 224 So. 2d 571, 575 (Miss. 1969) (citing Favre, 128 So. 2d 877). In loco parentis status carries with it the same duties and liabilities that belong to a natural parent, including a right to custody of the child “as against third persons.” Favre, 128 So. 2d at 879 (emphasis added) (citations omitted).

¶12. Although this doctrine grants third parties certain parental rights, such rights are inferior to those of a natural parent. Thus, in a custody dispute between one standing in loco parentis and a natural parent, the parent is entitled to custody unless the natural-parent presumption is rebutted. Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46-47. The court may not consider granting custody to a third party, including one standing in loco parentis, unless and until the third party rebuts this presumption. In other words, “[t]he doctrine of in loco parentis does not, by itself, overcome the natural-parent presumption,” although it may be a factor in determining whether the presumption has been rebutted. Id. at 46-47.

¶13. Giving preference to natural parents, even against those who have stood in their place, honors and protects the fundamental right of natural parents to rear their children. Vance v. Lincoln County Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 582 So. 2d 414, 417 (Miss. 1991) (citing Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166-67, 64 S. Ct. 438, 88 L. Ed. 645 (1944)). This concept is hardly new:

Nature gives to parents that right to the custody of their children which the law merely recognizes and enforces. It is scarcely less sacred than the right to life and liberty, and can never be denied save by showing the bad character of the parent, or some exceptional circumstances which render its enforcement inimical to the best interests of the child.

Moore v. Christian, 56 Miss. 408 (1879). See also Prince, 321 U.S. at 166 (“It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder.”) (citing Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 45 S. Ct. 571, 69 L. Ed. 1070, (1925)). Furthermore,

[A]s a consequence of this, it is presumed to be for the real interest of the child that it should be in the custody of its [natural parent], as against collateral relatives, and he, therefore, who seeks to withhold the custody against the natural and legal presumption, has the burden of showing clearly that the [parent] is an unsuitable person to have the custody of his [or her] child; or that, however moral a [person] may be, he [or she] had abandoned his child, contributing nothing to its support, taking no interest in it, and permitting it to remain continuously in the custody of others, substituting such others in his own place so that they stand in loco parentis to the child, and continuing this condition of affairs for so long a time that the affections of the child and of the foster parents have become mutually engaged to the extent that a severance of this relationship would surely result in destroying the best interest of the child.

Hibbette v. Baines, 78 Miss. 695, 29 So. 80 (1900). In other words, by allowing one’s child to remain in another’s custody, without providing any support to or pursuing a relationship with the child, a natural parent may, over time, relinquish his or her parental rights in favor of a de facto parent. More than a century later, the Court continues to recognize these legal maxims, declaring in Smith that “grandparents who stand in loco parentis have no right to the custody of a grandchild, as against a natural parent, unless the natural-parent presumption first is overcome by a showing of abandonment, desertion, detrimental immorality, or unfitness on the part of the natural parent.” Smith, 97 So. 3d at 47-48 (Ethredge v. Yawn, 605 So. 2d 761, 764, 766 (Miss. 1992)).

¶14. Davis has cited no authority to support our overruling this line of precedent. Instead, she relies on the facts in her case, arguing that, without a change in the law, there is no “real legal benefit” to the doctrine of in loco parentis. But, this Court clearly has recognized that the doctrine protects those standing in the shoes of the natural parents from outside intrusions, and these rights are constitutionally guarded. For example, in Britt v. Allred, 199 Miss. 786, 25 So. 2d 711 (1946), this Court held that parties who had taken in and cared for an orphaned child stood in loco parentis to the infant and could not be deprived of their “parental rights” without notice and an opportunity to be heard. Id. at 789-90 (emphasis added) (citations omitted). That decision noted that this holding was founded upon the “universal rule governing due process of law,” as recognized in our state and federal constitutions. Id. See U.S. Const. amend. XIV; Miss. Const. art. 3, § 14.

¶15. Judges often are faced with the difficult task of removing a child from a loving home in deference to a natural parent’s custodial rights. Even so, the law does not allow parental rights to supercede the best interests of the child. Parental rights, as is true of other fundamental rights, can be forfeited or taken away, and our law does recognize some means by which third parties can overcome the law’s preference of natural parents. See Smith, 97 So. 3d at 46 (listing the ways in which the natural-parent presumption may be rebutted). Consistent with longstanding legal authority, requiring Davis first to demonstrate that Vaughn had relinquished his right to parent his child, was not an undue burden. The law protects the best interests of the child by its recognition that a natural parent’s “liberty interest . . . in the care, custody, and management of their children and families,” is not an absolute right. G.Q.A. v. Harrison County Dep’t of Human Res., 771 So. 2d 331, 335 (Miss. 2000) (citing Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753-54, 758-59, 102 S. Ct. 1388, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599 (1982)).

This is the latest iteration of the Vaughn case. You can read an earlier post that mentions it here.

THE STRENGTH OF THE NATURAL PARENT PRESUMPTION

May 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Concetter Davis gave birth to a daughter, Sha’Nyla, and in 2008, James Wilson was adjudicated to be the father. Concetter was awarded custody, and James was granted visitation.

When Concetter died in July, 2011, James filed a pleading seeking to “modify” custody, based on the mother’s death. Concetter’s mother, however, resisted, filing pleadings with the court seeking to intervene and be appointed guardian of the child.

The trial proceeded as a modification, not as an original custody determination. The chancellor found that Concetter’s death was a material change in circumstances, and then found, based on an Albright analysis, that it was in the child’s best interest to remain with the grandmother. James appealed. 

The COA, in Wilson v. Davis, handed down April 30, 2013, reversed. The court first pointed out that this was not a modification case, since the original custody determination was between the two natural parents, one of whom was dead. Instead, this was an initial child-custody determination between a natural parent and a third-party. The court said, beginning at ¶ 8:

… [I]n a child-custody determination between a natural parent and a third party, such as a grandparent, the law presumes that it is in the best interest of the child for the natural parent to have custody. Lucas v. Hendrix, 92 So. 3d 699, 705-06 (¶17) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (citing McKee v. Flynt, 630 So. 2d 44, 47 (Miss. 1993)). This is because “[g]randparents have no legal right [to] custody of a grandchild, as against a natural parent.” Lorenz v. Strait, 987 So. 2d 427, 434 (¶41) (Miss. 2008).

¶9. The natural-parent presumption is rebuttable—but only “by a clear showing 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.” In re Smith, 97 So. 3d 43, 46 (¶9) (Miss. 2012) (citations omitted). Only after the presumption is rebutted is the grandparent on equal footing with the parent, permitting the chancellor to apply Albright to determine whether it is in the best interest of the child for the grandparent, versus the parent, to have custody. In re Dissolution of Marriage of Leverock & Hamby, 23 So. 3d 424, 431 (¶24) (Miss. 2009) (citations omitted).

Only after the presumption is rebutted by showing one of the four bases can the court place a third party on an equal ground with the parent and apply the Albright factors.

To hammer home the point, Judge Carlton added a specially concurring opinion including the thought that, “We must be mindful of the constitutional protection of parental rights against deprivation by third parties.”

BEST INTEREST IN A PARENT – NON-PARENT CUSTODY DISPUTE

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Is it necessary for the chancellor to analyze the proof in light of the Albright factors in a case where the grandparents are seeking to take custody from the natural father, the sole surviving parent, based on a finding of unfitness?

That Albright analysis question was an issue before the COA in the case of Lucas v. Hendrix, decided by the COA July 17, 2012. At trial, the chancellor had found that the father, Adam Lucas, was unfit, and awarded custody of the two minors, Tyler and Cody, to the maternal grandarents, Jeannie and John Hendrix, without any Albright analysis. Here is how Judge Roberts’ opinion addressed it, beginning at ¶16:

In his first issue, Lucas asserts that the chancellor used an incorrect legal standard by failing to apply an Albright analysis before granting the Hendrixes custody of Tyler and Cody …

¶17. In Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983), the Mississippi Supreme Court outlined multiple factors to be considered when determining which natural parent should receive custody of the child, with the polestar consideration being the best interest of the child. The supreme court and this Court have repeatedly stated that a different analysis must be applied when adjudicating custody between a natural parent and a third party, such as in this case. In custody cases involving a natural parent and a third party, a presumption exists that the natural parent is the best custodian for his child. McKee v. Flynt, 630 So. 2d 44, 47 (Miss. 1993). However, this natural-parent presumption may be overcome by clear and convincing evidence “that the parent has (1) abandoned the child[;] or (2) the conduct of the parent is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child[;] or (3) the parent is unfit mentally or otherwise to have the custody of his or her child.” Id. (quoting White v. Thompson, 569 So. 2d 1181, 1183-84 (Miss. 1990)); see also McCraw v. Buchanan, 10 So.3d 979, 984 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2009). Additionally, pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(1)(e) (Rev. 2004):

Upon a finding by the [chancery] court that both parents of the child have abandoned or deserted such child or that both such parents are mentally, morally or otherwise unfit to rear and train the child[,] the [chancery] court may award physical and legal custody to:

(i) The person in whose home the child has been living in a wholesome and stable environment; or

(ii) . . . any other person deemed by the [chancery] court to be suitable and able to provide adequate and proper care and guidance for the child.

In the current case, the chancellor relied on this statute because Moore, the boys’ natural mother, was deceased; therefore, Lucas was the sole remaining natural parent. If a chancellor finds the remaining natural parent to be unfit, as she did in this case, then the statute gives the chancellor the authority to grant custody to a third party.

¶18. We do not read Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24 or the majority of prior case law to require an Albright analysis if the chancellor finds the sole, natural parent has abandoned or deserted the child or is unfit to raise the child …

The decision went on to distinguish this case from In re Dissolution of the Marriage of Leverock and Hamby, 23 So.3d 424 (Miss. 2009). The primary point of departure between the two cases was that the chancellor made a finding of unfitness in the Lucas case, but there was no such finding in Leverock.

The important feature of the Lucas case is that no Albright analysis is necessary in a contest netween a natural parent and third parties once the chancellor has found unfitness. That finding alone is sufficient to trigger the change and opens the door to either class of custodians set out in the statute, without a best-interest Albright analysis.

Adam argued also that the chancellor erred by not expressly finding by clear and convincing evidence that he was unfit. Without saying it in so many words, however, the COA held the chancellor’s findings to be so detailed and supported by proof that they were tantamount to a finding by clear and convincing evidence, and so brushed aside this contention.

So does this mean you should not bother with proof of the Albright factors when you try a case of this type? I guess, strictly speaking, the answer would be in the affirmative. But why take the chance? Even if the chancellor does not use that evidence, you have it in the record if you need it.

THIRD-PARTY CUSTODY: HOW UNFIT IS UNFIT?

March 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

The law that applies in custody disputes between natural parents and third parties is not the same as that in custody disputes between two natural parents. “The well settled rule in a child custody case between a natural parent and a third party is that it is presumed that the best interest of the child will be preserved by being in the custody of the natural parent.” Sellers v. Sellers, 638 So.2d 481, 486 (Miss. 1994).

The Mississippi Supreme Court addressed the scope of this presumption in Stacy v. Ross, 798 So.2d 1275, 1279-80 (Miss. 2001), in which the court cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Traxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 2056, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000): “The Traxel court said, ‘as long as a parent adequately cares for his or her child (i.e., is fit) there will normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of that parent to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of that parent’s children.’”

The presumption in favor of natural parents in custody matters may, however, be rebutted and overcome. In McCraw v. Buchanan, 10 So.3d 979, 983-4 (Miss. App. 2009), the court pointed out that, in addition to the numerous cases holding that the presumption may be rebutted, MCA § 93-13-1 states that “ … if any father or mother be unsuitable to discharge the duties of guardianship …” then another party may be appointed guardian.

In Sellers, at 606, which is regarded as one of the leading cases on custody issues between natural parents and third parties, the court set out a three-part test against which the trial judge is required to measure the proof in the case:

“In order to overcome the presumption there must be a clear showing that (1) the parent has abandoned the child, (2) the conduct of the parent is so immoral as to be detrimental to the child, or (3) the parent is mentally or otherwise unfit to have custody of the child.”

The case of In Re Guardianship of Brown, 902 So.2d 604 (Miss. App. 2004), was an appeal from a chancellor’s decision awarding custody to a maternal grandmother based on a finding that the father was “otherwise unfit.” The appellate court looked to MCA § 93-15-103(3) as a helpful guide to the kinds of conduct that might constitute “otherwise unfitness.” The statute, which deals with termination of parental rights, enumerates categories of parental behavior that would warrant severing the relationship between parent and child. The court said:

“Abandonment, moral unfitness, and mental unfitness are all included in this statute; therefore, we find that a reading of this statute is helpful in deciding what types of factors a court should consider in deciding whether a natural parent is otherwise unfit for taking care of his children. In fact, courts have used exactly the same language explaining the burden of proof in termination of parental rights cases as they have used in explaining the rights of a natural parent to have custody over a third party: “In termination of parental rights cases the petitioner must prove that the natural parent either abandoned or deserted the child or is mentally or morally or otherwise unfit to rear or train the minor child.” N.E. v. L.H., 761 So.2d 956, 961 (Miss. App. 2000), (citing Petit v. Holifield, 443 So.2d 874, 877 (Miss. 1984).

The Brown court found that the statute is a legislative policy statement in favor of natural parents retaining their rights as parents, including the right to custody, and the decision goes on to state:

“We find that denial of custody to a natural parent in favor of a third party should be granted only when there is a clear showing that the natural parent has relinquished his parental rights, that he has no meaningful relationship with his children, or that the parent’s conduct is clearly detrimental to his children.” Brown, at 607.

Brown also includes the following language at page 609 on the question of “otherwise unfitness” that provides some helpful guidance for the trial court:

“The chancellor decided that Mr. Brown was not entitled to custody because he was otherwise unfit as a parent. Although a court is within its discretion to deny custody to a natural parent based on miscellaneous grounds, it must also appreciate the seriousness of granting custody to a third party over a natural parent. In awarding custody to a third party, the Mississippi Supreme Court has stated the natural parent presumption as early as the year 1900: “[Children] must and ought to be subject to the custody and control of those who are immediately responsible for their being, for the reason that by nature there has been implanted in the human heart those seeds of parental and filial affection that will assure to the infant care and protection in the years of its helplessness …. that the primary object is the interest of the child, the presumption of the law is that its interest is to be in the custody of its parent.” Hibbette v. Baines, 78 Miss. 695, 704, 29 So. 80, 81 (1900) (quoting Weir v. Marley, 99 Mo. 484, 12 S.W. 798, 800 (1890)). This presumption is overcome only by clear and convincing evidence. In overcoming this presumption, especially when making the determination on miscellaneous grounds, a court should look for factors that indicate a natural parent’s absence of a meaningful relationship with his child or behavior of the parent that is clearly detrimental to his child. In this case, the chancellor denied custody to Mr. Brown due to his inability to pay his child support in full and his inability to visit his children on a regular basis. In doing so, the chancellor was, in effect, denying Mr. Brown custody on the grounds of abandonment while simultaneously holding that Mr. Brown had not abandoned his children.

Even though Mr. Brown’s children are well cared for by their grandmother in Mississippi, a finding of unfitness is necessary to award custody to a third party over a natural parent. This finding is necessary before the court can decide the best interests of the children. In re Custody of M.A.G., 859 So.2d 1001, 1004(¶ 7) (Miss.2003). We find that the chancellor incorrectly applied the law in finding that Mr. Brown was an unfit parent. We also find that the chancellor’s holding that Mr. Brown was not emotionally available for his children is unsupported by the record.”

In order for a third party to overcome the presumption in favor of the natural parent’s right of custody, then, there must be a showing, by clear and convincing evidence, that the natural parent has abandoned the child, or that the natural parent is entirely unfit to have custody because the natural parent has relinquished his parental rights, or because he has no meaningful relationship with his children, or that the parent’s conduct is clearly detrimental to his children.

The parental presumption no longer applies if the natural parent has voluntarily given up custody of a minor child by court order.  Grant v. Martin, 757 So.2d 264, 266 (Miss. 2000).

Also, a parent may be found to have “constructively abandoned” a child without conduct as extreme as MCA § 93-13-1 if the court finds that the parent has voluntarily abandoned parental responsibility and removed himeslf from active participation in the child’s life for so long that the effect is the same as actual abandonment.  In Hill v. Mitchell, 818 So.2d 1221, 1226 (Miss. App. 2002), the case in which the court of appeals enunciated the concept, the mother had left her child with grandparents for eleven years under a temporary court order, but had remained in regular contact with the child.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with third-party custody at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.