Children are a contentious part of many divorces. Who will get primary custody? How does a judge decide what is fair? And what can you do if you think the court has made a mistake? Today’s blog will look at a recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court in a case called In Re C.J.C. The case involved a separation, an accidental death, and the custody rights of fit parents. If you or someone you know is expecting a messy custody case, it is worth your time to be familiar with it.
Background of the Custody Battle: A Fiancé and a Traffic Accident
The Texas Supreme Court issued its ruling in 2020. But like most cases, this one was several years in the making. According to the Court’s opinion, a couple had lived together for five years. They never married, but they did have a child, who the court called “Abigail.” After five years, the couple separated. Their custody arrangement called for Abigail to live with her mother about 54 percent of the time, and with her father the remainder of the time.
Afterward, the mother started dating someone else, a man named Jason. They moved in together; thus, when Abigail was living with her mother, she was spending time with her new boyfriend as well. Jason stated that he had a good relationship with Abigail, and she called him “Pops.” This arrangement had continued for about 11 months.
The couple eventually got engaged. And at some point in the process, the girl’s mother filed a suit seeking to modify the court order: She wanted full custody of Abigail for her and Jason. But in 2018, before they could be married, the mother was in a car accident and died suddenly.
A Question of Custody
Besides being an obvious tragedy, the mother’s death added an unexpected complication to the child custody case. After the accident, Abigail moved in with her biological father, named Chris.
However, Jason did not want to lose access to Abigail. The girl’s maternal grandparents also worried they would not get to see their granddaughter. So both parties filed a petition with the court and asked to be named joint managing conservators. The fiancé also wanted periods of possession. In other words, they wanted shared child custody.
Abigail’s biological father, Chris, opposed this plan, and the case went to court. A lower court dismissed the grandparents’ case. But the court allowed Jason’s case to proceed. Learn more about your legal rights as a grandparent.
Why Did the Fiancé Want Child Custody?
The Texas Family Code states that the child’s best interests must always be the court’s primary consideration. A trial court awarded Jason temporary custody order. The court noted that the fiancé had lived with the girl for at least six months and that it was in the child’s best interests for him to continue to be involved in her life.
Chris, the biological father appealed this decision. And in June of last year, the case made its way to the Texas Supreme Court.
Why Did the Father Think He Should Have Full Custody?
Chris maintained that the temporary child custody order issued by the trial court violated his parental rights. His attorney’s argument relied heavily on a ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 in the case Troxel v. Granville.
In that case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that if someone is considered a “fit” parent, he or she has a right to care for their child as they see best, without interference by the state. The court further held that any judge’s decision that overrides the parental rights of a fit parent is unconstitutional. The father argued that the ruling in Troxel v. Granville overrode the fiancé’s claim for custody.
For his part, the fiancé’s lawyer argued that when Chris had gone to court seeking help in the custody matter, he had effectively surrendered his parental rights to determine the child’s best interests. If this was true, it would nullify the precedent set in Troxel v. Granville.
How the Court Decided this Custody Case
The Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Chis. The Texas Supreme Court recognized the right of fit parents to decide what is best for their children, and this presumption is “deeply embedded” in Texas law. Just as important, the court noted there was no indication that Chris was in any way an unfit parent.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled that when the lower court had given the fiancé temporary custody, they had essentially overridden the parental rights of Chris to decide what was best for Abigail. The court wrote:
Why This Custody Rights Case Matters to Fit Parents
Children routinely have other adults involved in their lives. This can be especially common when the parent’s divorce. The divorced parents may start dating; eventually, one of those people may become the child’s stepparent. When someone who has parental rights dies, the question of who gets custody can get complicated and ugly.
The case In Re C.J.C. reaffirms, in no uncertain terms, the constitutional right of fit parents to determine the best interests of the children. Specifically, the case reaffirms the right of that parent to retain sole custody over the wishes of a non-parent to have custody.
Simply put, if you are a non-parent who is trying to get custody of a child, you are facing an uphill battle. And if you are a parent who is battling with a non-parent to retain custody, you need to know that the law is on your side.
How Do Courts Decide Who is a Fit Parent?
The Texas Family Code outlines several conditions that can justify a parent losing possession of his or her children. A parent may lose custody if he or she:
- Was absent for at least three months
- Knowingly engaged in conduct that endangered the well-being of the child, or knowingly allowed the child to be in a situation that endangered his or her well-being
- Has abused drugs or alcohol
- Has been convicted of a serious crime
- Voluntarily and knowingly abandoned the woman, or failed to provide adequate support, during the time of her pregnancy and through the birth;
- Is responsible for the child being born addicted to alcohol or an illegal drug;
- Knowingly refused to comply with court orders
- Failed to provide adequate support for the child over an extended time
- Voluntarily abandoned the child with an expressed intent not to return;
- Has had his or her parental rights terminated in another case
In making custody decisions, courts work from the presumption that ideally, it is in the child’s best interests to have both parents actively involved in his or her life. Courts also will assume that parents are fit to care for their children unless proven otherwise.
To override that assumption, someone must show that the parent is somehow unfit. In their initial lawsuits, neither Jason nor the girl’s grandparents had presented any evidence that Chris was in any way an unfit parent. Thus, the mother’s initial lawsuit seeking full custody of Abigail probably would have failed anyway. Read our blog about how to win custody in Texas.
The Custody Rights of Fit Parents Are Too Important to Leave to Chance
Custody cases can be stressful, contentious. and complicated. At Sean Lynch, our lawyers are experts in the Texas Family Code and very experienced in the complexities of these cases. We will fight for your family in court, while always remaining sensitive to the concerns of protecting your child or children. We also offer transparent, affordable pricing.
For a no-cost, initial consultation, contact our office or call 817-668-5879. You’ll be happy with your decision to consult with our award-winning Tarrant County divorce attorneys.