The Fit Parent Presumption in the State of Texas

Child involved in a Texas child custody case

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Parents in the State of Texas – and throughout the United States – have very strong parental rights. Texas courts are bound to make child custody decisions based on the involved children’s best interests, but there is a presumption that it is in every child’s best interest to be raised by their parents – barring a solid reason for ruling otherwise. However, termination of parental rights can still happen.

Facing termination of your parental rights can be terrifying for Texas parents. If you have concerns related to child custody, discuss the matter with an experienced Killeen divorce attorney today.

Your Rights as a Parent

The U.S. Supreme Court agrees that every parent has the fundamental right to make primary decisions regarding their children’s care and custody. In fact, courts generally cannot interfere with a fit parent’s foundational rights. The fact that parents are presumed to be fit – unless proven otherwise – makes it difficult for someone who is not a parent to obtain custody.

A Recent Case

In a recent Texas custody case, a mother challenged a legal judgment that named her children’s paternal aunt and uncle as their managing conservators. The following facts are useful in understanding the full context of this case:

  • The mother and father entered a mediated settlement agreement in 2016, which appointed them joint managing conservatorship over their two minor children.

  • The father was granted the right to designate the primary residence for the children.

  • The father chose the home of his brother and sister-in-law – who proceeded to assume his parenting duties.

  • In 2017, the mother petitioned the court to modify the standing child custody order by designating her as the primary managing conservator.

  • Her petition alleged that the father had relinquished care, control, and possession of their shared children for at least six months.

  • Two months after the mother filed her petition, the children’s paternal aunt and uncle sought conservatorship of the children, alleging that the father had relinquished care, control, and possession to them.

  • The aunt and uncle sought the designation of sole managing conservators with supervised visitation for the mother or, alternately, sought to be named as joint managing conservators with the mother.

In the lead-up to the case, the mother challenged the aunt and uncle’s legal standing to intervene in the matter and moved to have their pleadings struck. The mother’s motion was denied in a pretrial hearing.

The Proceedings

A jury was impaneled to determine the outcome of the case, but before it was sworn in, the mother argued for a parental presumption in her favor. In other words, she asked the court to enforce the legal presumption that she was a fit parent with the right to sole conservatorship of her children – over the nonparents involved.

She maintained that this is the legal standard – unless the aunt and uncle had evidence that demonstrated that “the appointment would significantly impair the children’s physical health or emotional development.”

For their part, the aunt and uncle objected to this presumption as a misstatement of the law, and the court sustained their objection.

With so many interested parties in a custody case, it is essential to always come prepared with skilled legal guidance. Work closely with a seasoned Killeen custody attorney for help preparing your best case to protect your parental rights.

The Children’s Best Interests as a Factual Matter

Upon the mother’s second urging that it apply the parental presumption, which the father argued against, the court concluded that the children’s best interests were a matter of fact for the jury to determine without the application of a parental presumption.

As the trial court finalized the jury charge, the mother did not readdress the matter of parental presumption, and she had no objection when the court asked if there were any in response to the jury charge. As the case proceeded, the mother attempted to argue parental presumption to the jury, but the father objected – and the court sustained his objection.

The Jury’s Decision

Ultimately, the jury determined the following outcomes:

However, before the trial court could finalize the matter, the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion that explicitly incorporated a fit parent presumption for all child custody modification proceedings.

The Texas Supreme Court found that when a nonparent seeks court-ordered custody of a child that is already subject to a court order involving one or both fit parents as managing conservators, the parent or parents retain the presumption that protects their primary right to determine the best interests of the child.

The Mother’s Response

In response to the jury’s verdict, the mother filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict in which she argued a compelling reason to enter a judgment contrary to the findings of the jury. However, the court denied her motion and entered final orders confirming the jury’s decision. As such, the mother appealed.

Appeals can be a good option for you if you feel you were treated unfairly. Contact a skilled Killeen custody lawyer for help arranging an appeal for your case.

The Issues on Appeal

On appeal, the mother addressed three issues:

  • Whether or not her fundamental rights as a parent were violated by the trial court’s refusal to apply the fit parent presumption throughout the proceedings, including the jury charge

  • Whether or not there was legally sufficient evidence to remove the mother’s managing conservator role

  • Whether or not the aunt and uncle had any legal standing based on the fact that they failed to overcome the fit parent presumption

For their part, the aunt and uncle argued that the fit parent presumption was not applicable in this case and that, even if it was, there was enough evidence to support the jury’s finding and the court’s ruling on their legal standing to intervene.

The Application of the Law

The State of Texas clearly supports every fit parent’s right to guide their children’s upbringing, and this arrangement is presumed to be in the children’s best interest.

While parental presumption had not previously applied to modification cases, this changed before the case was decided. Before the shift, nonparents and parents were on equal footing regarding children's best interests in modification cases. However, this balance did not align with every fit parent’s right to direct their children’s upbringing.

The recent ruling shared that the initial judgment – made prior to modification – comes with the understanding that it is based on the children’s best interests.

In response, the Texas Supreme Court determined that the best interests of children should be calculated in accordance with the fit parent presumption in every case in which a nonparent seeks conservatorship or access over the objection of a fit parent.

The Jury Charge

The appeals court found that, because the mother did not object to the trial court’s jury charge, she waived her complaint on this specific issue. She did not, however, waive her complaint that the aunt and uncle had insufficient evidence to overcome the fit parent presumption and, therefore, to support the jury’s verdict.

Legally Sufficient Evidence

When reviewing the parental presumption's effect on the evidence's legal sufficiency, there must be more than what is called a “scintilla” of supporting evidence. This requirement means that the evidence must rise “to a level that would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to differ in their conclusions.”

When someone who is not a child’s parent requests possession or conservatorship of the child, there is a presumption that the child’s best interests are upheld when a fit parent – and not the court – decides whether to grant the request. In order to rebut a parent’s fitness, there must be evidence that supports such a finding.

Ultimately, the court needs a compelling reason to infringe on a parent's fundamental rights. These reasons generally involve the child’s health and well-being. The final word on this rebuttal is that a nonparent must prove that the involved children’s physical health or emotional well-being would be seriously impaired if custody were not granted to them.

The Texas Supreme Court puts it this way:

The link between the parent’s conduct and harm to the child may not be based on evidence that merely raises a surmise or suspicion of possible harm. We have also recognized that significant impairment has been inferred from uprooting a child from a nonparental caretaker when the removal would be devastating or akin to psychological amputation or cause serious psychological damage, but we further indicated that there must be some evidence explaining how the impairment would manifest as significant.

The Fit Parent Presumption

At trial, the children’s uncle testified that their father had the court-awarded right to determine their primary residence, and he’d chosen their home. For his part, the father testified that he had not given the children to his brother but, instead, had turned to him for help in the face of his own troubles. When asked to share these troubles with the court, he responded that he had neither a vehicle nor a place to live – “just little things like that.” He also ultimately admitted that he had entered a rehab facility for eight months.

Considering the Mother’s Rights

When the father was asked if he’d considered whether it would be in the children’s best interest to be with the mother, he responded, “Why split them up when they’re good right here where they’re at?” The father did admit that the mother had her own home and could obtain medical care for the children as needed. He also described the mother’s home as an “all-right place.”

The mother ultimately shared her concern that the children were confused about who their parents were.

The Children’s Care and Schooling

The mother, the father, and the aunt and uncle all recounted various squabbles they’d had with one another regarding the children’s care when they were with each other.

The mother also testified that she felt like she’d been intentionally excluded from the children’s schooling and extracurriculars. The children’s school reported that the children’s aunt and uncle had registered them at the school and had not included their mother as a point of contact. Further, the principal relayed that the father had given the aunt and uncle power of attorney, allowing them to make primary decisions on the children’s behalf and act as primary parents.

The father testified that the mother did not always show up at the court-ordered time of 6 p.m. to pick up the children. In response, his family prevented her from seeing the children at all during these scheduled visits. The father stated that other parents had shared this strategy with him, and he intended to make her follow the court order – otherwise, “What was the meaning of having a court order?”

When the mother was asked why she wanted to modify the child custody order, she responded that their father had given the children away without her knowledge. When the mother’s attorney asked the father if he was shocked when his brother and sister-in-law filed a motion to intervene, he simply replied by saying, “no.”

The Appeals Court’s Ruling

The 2016 order that named the mother as a joint conservator answered the question of the children’s best interests and their custody.

In its review of evidence related to changes that had occurred since 2016, the appeals court noted that the only significant change was that the father had turned the children over to his brother and sister-in-law without notifying the mother. The children’s aunt and uncle began directing the mother’s custody terms and making schooling decisions against her wishes.

As such, the appeals court found that the aunt and uncle did not overcome the mother’s parental presumption. This finding led to a reversal of the trial court’s judgment and to the case being remanded for a new trial in which the fit parent presumption will be incorporated in the analysis regarding the children’s best interests.

Discuss Your Case with an Experienced Killeen Divorce Attorney Today

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas – recognizes the profound importance of his clients’ parental rights. He has the keen legal insight and skill to advocate for advantageous case outcomes fiercely. Learn more by contacting us online or calling us at (254) 781-4222 today.

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