A recent case of grandparent custody offers some useful information regarding how that process can work. In an opinion issued this month by the Court of Special Appeals, that court upheld a trial judge’s giving custody of a child to his paternal grandparents over either parent because, even though the law has a presumption in favor of parental custody, that can be overcome when the parents are unfit, and exceptional circumstances exist. The appeals court also upheld the child support order, concluding that the child support guidelines applied regardless of whether the custodian was a parent or a third party.
The parents, Mark and Natasha Burak, married in 2006 and had a son in 2008. The home situation for that child was, in the words of the appeals court, one of “chaos and instability.” When the child was just a few months old, the parents began a polyamorous relationship with another woman, who eventually lived with the family for a period of a few years. The threesome also used marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs together.
The child spent many weekends and some weeknights with the paternal grandparents. In many instances, the grandparents were the ones to take the child to doctor appointments, dentist appointments, recreational activities, and church. Initially, after the parents divorced, the court awarded custody to the mother. However, the mother eventually moved into the home four of her relatives, some of whom hoarded animals. Some time later, the grandparents intervened, and the court decided that they should have physical and legal custody of the child because neither parent was fit.
About six months after the custody order came the court’s child support order, with the court ordering each parent to pay child support to the grandparents, setting the husband’s obligation at a little more than $600 and the wife’s at just below $1,500. In an additional step in this complicated case, however, the court allowed the grandparents to intervene in the parents’ divorce litigation. Early in the marriage, the husband’s parents had given him and the wife a gift of $131,000 to use as a down payment on their family home. The husband’s parents argued that the gift was conditioned on the continuation of the marriage and the raising of their grandchild in the home. The trial court sided with the husband’s parents and ruled that, when the house was sold as part of the divorce property distribution, the husband’s parents got the first $131,000 of the proceeds from the sale.
The wife appealed these rulings, achieving a mix of successes and failures. The wife lost her claims related to the custody decision and the child support ruling. The appeals court opinion explained that Maryland trial courts have broad discretion in the rulings they make when it comes to child custody. While it is true, as the wife argued, that the U.S. and Maryland Constitutions give parents certain rights regarding the upbringing of their children, those rights are not absolute. If you are a grandparent seeking custody, there are still ways of achieving success despite the presumption in favor of the parents. The presumption can be overcome if a third party proves to the court that the parents were unfit, that exceptional circumstances existed, and that placing the child in the custody of a third party would be in the best interest of the child.
In this case, all of those findings were made. The mother was not honest with the court about her drug use, her mental health, and the child’s school attendance. She also had failed to follow up after the school counselor made a referral related to the child’s violent behavior. This proof, especially related to the mother’s drug use and parenting problems, was ample enough to overcome the presumption and warrant giving custody to the grandparents.
Support Guidelines Apply Regardless of Who Has Custody
The appeals court also upheld the child support order, despite the mother’s claims that her support obligation was roughly 50% of her monthly pay. Her obligation — $1,467 per month — was “grossly excessive,” she said, and did not factor in the grandparents’ considerable wealth and her lack of it. The appeals court upheld the support order because the order followed the state’s child support guidelines. Even though the child was in the custody of a non-parent, the child support guidelines still applied to setting the support obligation amount in this case. The law imposes upon a parent an obligation to support her child, whether her child resides with another parent or a “custodial third party,” and “there is no reason to view the extent of the support obligation differently simply because the payee is someone other than the parent.”
The wife did, however, win her argument on the reimbursement of the $131,000 down payment. The appeals court concluded that the grandparents never even should have been allowed to intervene in the case. Regardless of the representations each side made to the other regarding whether the money was a loan or a gift, the divorce action was not the right place to litigate that dispute. The point of divorce litigation “is to sever the marital relationship and distribute the rights and responsibilities that grew out of it, such as the custody and support of children and the division of marital assets, not to facilitate the collection of marital debts by third parties,” the court’s opinion stated.
If you are a grandparent or another concerned family member seeking custody of a child, even though the law favors placing children in the custody of their parents, you may still be able to succeed and obtain custody if you can prove the existence of extraordinary circumstances. Experienced Maryland family law counsel can help show you how to do this. Maryland child custody attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has helped many families as they seek to resolve custody disputes. With skilled legal counsel on your side, you can make sure that your argument is persuasive. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Highest Court in Maryland Upholds Child Support Award Interpreting “Artificial Insemination” Law, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, May 31, 2016
State Supreme Court Ruling Obligates Stepfather to Pay Child Support, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, Jan. 14, 2016