For many parents, engaging in a child custody battle during a divorce or paternity case is, frankly, terrifying. The thought of missing out on spending time with your child is nerve-wracking for any parent, especially in cases where the parties are estranged.
In Re C.J.C., a recent child custody case set an important precedent for custody battles in Texas going forward. The case, which escalated to the Texas Supreme Court, ultimately decided that fit parents have a constitutional right to decide what's in their child's best interests. We're covering the case and what its outcome means for parents in Texas.
At Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, we can help you pursue an equitable outcome in your child custody case. We know how stressful custody disputes can be—let us shoulder the legal burden of your case so you can focus on what matters most: being there for your child(ren).
To schedule a consultation with our team and learn more about how we can help you with your case, contact us online or via phone at (940) 293-2313.
What Was the In Re C.J.C. Case About?
The circumstances surrounding the In Re C.J.C.case were rather unique.
The case initially involved two co-parents of a girl. The girl's mother filed a lawsuit against the father, seeking sole custody of her daughter. However, before the case was finalized, the mother passed away. The mother's fiancé, who at that point had known the girl for about 10-11 months, sought custody of the girl.
A trial court issued a temporary custody order in favor of the fiancé, allowing him to see the girl for two days per month. However, the father appealed the results, and the case escalated to the Texas Supreme Court.
What Was the Fiancé’s Argument?
The fiancé argued that, even though he was a non-parent of the child, he deserved custody rights in reflection of the mother's pre-death lawsuit against the father and his position in the family dynamic due to his significant and consistent possession and access to the child for the prior six months. According to the fiancé, the child called him "Pops."
After the mother's death, the fiancé and the child's maternal grandparents sought joint custody with the girl's father. A court dismissed the grandparents' case but allowed the fiancé’s case to proceed. The fiancé argued that he served as a parental figure to the girl, and thus deserved some custody rights. Ultimately, a trial court awarded the fiancé a temporary custody order under the pretense the fiancé lived with the child for over six months, the period required for a non-parent to request custody rights.
Once the father appealed the trial court's decision, the case escalated to the Texas Supreme Court.
What Was the Father's Argument?
The father argued that the temporary custody order issued by the trial court violated his constitutional rights as a parent, based on the precedent set by the US Supreme Court during the 2000 case, Troxel v. Granville.
In Troxel v. Granville, the US Supreme Court ruled that "fit parents" have a constitutional right to care for their child how they see fit, regardless of interference by the state.
The father and his representation argued that the constitutional rights afforded to fit parents in Troxel v. Granville should override the fiancé’s ability to claim custody as a non-parent. For his part, the fiancé argued that the father gave up his right to determine the child's best interests regardless of state interference by seeking help from a court in a child custody matter, which would effectively nullify the precedent set in Troxel v. Granville.
The court ultimately ruled in the father's favor, unanimously granting the father sole custody and reversing the ruling by the Denton County trial court that gave the fiancé temporary custody rights.
Why Should Parents Care?
It's not uncommon for an individual without parental rights, such as a stepfather or stepmother, to become involved in a child's life. When an individual with parental rights passes away, the custody dispute between the remaining parent and non-parent can quickly get ugly.
This case re-affirms the rights of fit parents in Texas. It further serves to reinforce the constitutional right of fit parents to determine their child's best interests and retain sole custody in situations where a non-parent enters a custody dispute.
If you're a parent entering a custody battle with a non-parent, understanding this case and citing it as a precedent for your argument could pay dividends in court.
How Do Courts Decide Whether a Parent Is "Fit?"
At this point, you may be wondering what makes a parent "fit," since only fit parents have a constitutional right to make decisions on behalf of their child in custody cases.
The court may decide a parent is "unfit" if they:
- Have a history of child abuse, neglect, or making decisions that go against the child's best interests and well-being;
- Abuse alcohol or other illegal substances;
- Are not mentally or physically well enough to care for a child;
- Have an unsafe home;
- Are not financially capable of caring for a child;
- Do not live in a location conducive to caring for a child;
- Have a work schedule that makes caring for a child properly challenging;
- Have a record of poor parental behavior in the past;
- Have a history of going against child custody orders set by the court.
The court may also ask for the child's opinion during custody cases. The older or more mature the child is, the more heavily the court will weigh their opinion.
In any custody case, the court's primary concern is the child's best interests. Courts default to the presumption that both parents are fit to care for their child, and that joint custody (where the child lives with or sees both parents regularly) is preferable to partial or sole custody (where the child lives with one parent most or all of the time, respectively).
To that end, if non-parents wishes to gain custody rights, they may have to prove that the child's parent is unfit to care for them or incapable of pursuing the child's best interests.
The same burden is also placed on parents who want to acquire sole custody of their children. For example, In Re C.J.C., the mother's initial lawsuit against the father probably would have only been successful if she could prove the father was unfit to parent the child.
At Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, we have experience representing clients in complicated custody matters. Whether you're pursuing custody as a non-parent or seeking to retain custody you already have, our lawyers can help you gather evidence to support your case and defend you in court.
To schedule a consultation with our team and speak with a lawyer about your case, contact us online or give us a call at (940) 293-2313.