Changing family relationships have posed new complications for awarding custody. In a widely-watched case, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a trial court cannot grant child custody to the deceased mother’s former fiancé over objections from the child’s biological father. The Court’s ruling resolved how courts should balance parental rights when nonparents try to modify custody orders.
This case began when the child’s mother filed for modification of her custody agreement with the biological father. When the case was pending, however, the mother was killed in a car accident. The father sought custody after her death.
But the deceased mother’s fiancé also intervened in the case and sought possession or access to the child. He lived with the mother and child for approximately 11 months. The trial court entered a temporary order allowing the fiancé to visit the child two days per month and providing some other rights. The father sought to block this order.
Texas law follows US Supreme Court rulings that recognize the fundamental rights of parents. If a parent is fit, according to the state Supreme Court, the law presumes that the best interests of the child are met by granting custody to that parent.
In this case, the state Supreme Court ruled that the child’s biological father was a fit parent who loved and cared for his daughter. He took her to counseling after her mother’s death, helped her with her homework and attended church with her. He remarried an elementary school teacher since the mother’s death.
Texas law does not have a fit-parent presumption governing custody modification proceedings. But the Court ruled that courts must use this presumption in any case where a nonparent seeks custody.
When a nonparents requests conservatorship, the child’s best interest is associated with the presumption that the fit parent, not the trial court, should decide whether to allow that request. The Court concluded that the trial court in this case improperly substituted its own judgment for the father about the child’s best interest.
As this case demonstrates, custody matters may be complicated, and the law sometimes evolves. An attorney can help protect rights and assure that the child’s interests are protected.