Custody of the Jackson Children--A Tough Decision

With all the requests to weigh in on the fate of the Jackson Children, it was only prudent to wait until Michael Jackson’s will was filed in probate court. If only it were that easy.

Michael Jackson is succeeded by three children –Prince Michael, age twelve, Paris Katherine, age eleven, and Prince Michael II (also known as Blanket), age seven. The first two children were born during his marriage to Debbie Rowe, which lasted from 1996 to 1999. Debbie Rowe attempted to terminate her parental rights when they divorced but her parental rights were restored on appeal in 2003. To make matters even more complicated, the youngest boy, Blanket was born to an unidentified surrogate mother.

Jackson’s will did not dispose of the issue of custody. Last week, on June 29, 2009, Katherine Jackson, was granted temporary guardianship of the three children. The following day, Michael Jackson’s will revealed that Michael wanted his mother, Katherine Jackson to have permanent guardianship of the children and Diana Ross as a successor guardian if Katherine were to predecease him. That all sounds finite but the reality is that Michael Jackson does not automatically have the final word on custody since his will cannot deprive Debbie Rowe of custody. The Court may give weight to Jackson’s preference but it will only be one factor in the final custody decision. [Stay tuned for more on the topic of Michael’s will. As of July 6, 2009, it was reported that Michael Jackson may have another will.]

It was not clear that a contested custody battle would ensue until July 2, 2009 when Debbie Rowe’s attorneys announced that she planned to pursue  custody of the  Jackson children. As a result, Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff rescheduled the guardianship hearing for July 13, 2009.

So who will be awarded custody of the Jackson children?

There is a presumption under California law that the custody of the two older minor children should be with the legal parent, Debbie Rowe. According to the California Family Code, the court will typically look to grant child custody first to the parents according the best interest of the child and if they are deemed unfit the court will then look to grant child custody to other persons according to the best interest of the child. Therefore, in order to overcome this presumption, Katherine Jackson (or anyone else seeking custody of the minor children) must show that Debbie Rowe is essentially an unfit parent.

Although the unfitness standard is at play, the judge will still examine the preeminent factor of “the best interest of the child(ren)” as the overriding concern. In fact, no single factor will win the case. The Court will examine the best environment in which to protect the children’s safety, health and welfare. The Court will also review the emotional stability and constancy of care which are critical to the Court’s ultimate decision. Courts do try to keep siblings living together and will give some weight to the wishes of the children depending on their age and ability to express such desires. The Court will also review the background history of the parties such as a history of physical abuse or any crimes. In order to obtain all of this information, the parties most likely will be required to submit to a psychological evaluation performed by an expert retained by the court.

Assuming Rowe and Katherine Jackson duke it out, the court’s decision will be incredibly onerous as there are major problems with both Katherine Jackson and Debbie Rowe  as custodians. Briefly, Debbie Rowe has failed to see her children regularly, attempted to terminate her parental rights and tried, in effect, to sell her children. Rowe has not exactly achieved the nomination for mom-of-the-year in my book.

Katherine Jackson, on the other hand, has been touted by Michael and Jermain Jackson and others as a loving care giver. I disagree. Did anyone examine how Katherine can be called loving when she allowed Michael Jackson to be horribly abused by his father, Joe Jackson? Katherine’s conduct is no different than Joe the abuser (not to be confused with “Joe the Plumber”) and, in fact, may be worse. Katherine had the ability to protect Michael but failed to do so.  So the next logical question is whether Katherine will protect Michael’s children from Joe Jackson or anyone else who attempts to hurt these children?  I have serious doubts. Katherine is also 79 years old and rumored to be ill. Let’s be real, if Katherine dies or becomes disabled, then the Court has done a severe disservice to the children by requiring them to be displaced once again.

Assuming the children’s nanny, Grace Rwaramba, were to file for custody, perhaps she may be the best custodian for the children. After all, she cared for the children on a daily basis and has been the children’s defacto “mother” for more than a decade. She lived with Michael and the children and was accustomed to the daily routine and habits of the children. Grace also represents a continuous stabilizing and loving force in the children’s lives.

If Rowe or Katherine Jackson were savvy, they would propose hiring nanny Grace as the children’s primary care giver while seeking custody. Actually, Katherine is the only party who has the ability to hire nanny Grace at this point in time because she was granted temporary guardianship of the children. This plan would definitely provide an advantage in court and also serve to assist the children in this difficult transition.

While there are no easy answers, there are many lessons to be learned from this terrible tragedy. I only hope and pray that Michael Jackson’s undying love for his children transcends and lessens the pain, anguish and grief they will undoubtedly endure.  

Comments

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  • "Undying love for his children?" Wow, you are a lawyer. The only thing Michael Jackson loved was himself. His children, his music, his face...they were nothing but toys in Neverland.

  • In the estate planning stage, clients often have stronger desires for the guardianship of young children than the descent and distribution of their assets. Understandable.

    But, it's important to understand (as your article shows) that guardianship is not something the testator can "pass on" like a car or cash. The court will take a good, hard look at who the decedent appoints...but at the end of the day you can't give your kids to just anybody.

  • In reply to lawguy60606:

    Law Guy: Thank you for reading my blog. I could not agree more with your thoughtful comment.

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