Though it just concluded its second season on July 21, 2019, HBO’s hit show “Big Little Lies” has already drawn critical acclaim as a crime drama that follows the lives of five women in Monterey, CA. One story arc features a character who loses custody of her twin sons to the mother of her recently deceased husband. The scenario may make for engaging television, but it can lead to some confusion over parental rights in California.
In truth, it can be very difficult for a grandparent or any non-parent to get custody of minors absent extreme circumstances. It would be rare that anyone other than a parent could obtain custody over a child. There are even challenges for parents who are going through divorce or paternity cases, since courts place a priority on the child’s best interests.
Charles D. Stark, a Sonoma County attorney child custody, visitation, and co-parenting, explained that state law dictates the child’s best interests standard. “A judge will look at the health, safety, and welfare of the child when making decisions on care and parenting time. For instance, if there’s any evidence of violence, alcohol or substance abuse, or other criminal activity, the living arrangement isn’t in the child’s best interests.”
Other factors when looking at the child’s best interests include:
● The ability of parents to get along in co-parenting;
● The child’s preferences, if he or she is of an appropriate maturity level to make responsible choices;
● How well each parent can encourage a positive relationship with the child and other parent;
● Willingness to coordinate child care schedules; and,
● Many other factors.
Mr. Smith noted that the gender or traditional gender roles of parents are not a consideration. “While the mother may have had an advantage in the past, courts will not take these issues into account. The big picture matters in looking at the child’s best interests.”
In the context of grandparents’ rights, Mr. Smith pointed out that visitation is a very different analysis. Custody is concerned with important decision making regarding this child, such as education, health care, extracurricular activities, and other significant issues. Visitation involves limited interaction, which means grandparents’ rights may be recognized by courts. Grandparents may be able to enjoy more time with minor children, especially when there is an established relationship. This complies with the child’s best interests standards, which are served through maintaining the status quo with their extended family.