Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In Re The Matter Of T.Q.L[1]

Opinion handed down Dec. 18, 2012

The Petitioner, M.M.A., and Respondent, L.L., had a relationship which was thought to have resulted in the birth of a child, T.Q.L.  Over the years, M.M.A. fulfilled the role of T.Q.L.’s father.  Eventually M.M.A. and L.L.’s relationship ended and a paternity test revealed that M.M.A. was not the biological father.  M.M.A. filed a petition alleging unfitness of both L.L. and the child’s biological father, ultimately seeking third-party custody and visitation.  The circuit court dismissed M.M.A’s petition for failure to state a claim.  M.M.A. brought this action for reinstatement of his petition seeking third-party custody and visitation of T.Q.L.  The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the circuit court’s dismissal and reinstated M.M.A.’s petition. The Court held that M.M.A. could petition the court for third-party custody and visitation.

I. Facts and Holding

In 2003, Respondent,  L.L. gave birth to a son, T.Q.L.,  and Petitioner M.M.A. was believed to be the father of the child.[2]  The couple signed a pre-birth agreement, providing that M.M.A would provide support to L.L.  and the child, that L.L. would not list M.M.A.’s name on the child’s birth certificate, and that neither person would initiate or participate in action seeking custody of the child.[3]  Over the next four year,  M.M.A. acted as T.Q.L.’s father, visiting with the child and taking him on trips to see M.M.A.’s family.[4]

By 2007, the relationship between M.M.A. and L.L. had soured and M.M.A. filed a petition for declaration of paternity, custody, and visitation as the child’s putative father.[5]  L.L. contended that M.M.A. was not the child’s biological father and that she did not know where the child’s biological father was located.[6]  The circuit court ordered M.M.A. to take a DNA test, which showed that he was not T.Q.L.’s biological father.[7]  The guardian ad litem in the pending custody and visitation case moved to dismiss the case on the premise that M.M.A. did not have a claim supported by Missouri law under the Uniform Parentage Act.[8]  The circuit court dismissed and M.M.A. appealed.[9]  The court of appeals reversed and remanded, allowing M.M.A. to file a second amended petition under other theories of custody.[10]

In M.M.A.’s second and third amended petitions, he made allegations of the unfitness of L.L., citing her mental instability, suicide attempts, purposeful separation of M.M.A. and T.Q.L, and other reckless decisions on her part as the basis of his petition for third-party custody and visitation.[11]  Those petitions also alleged the unfitness of the unknown biological father for failure to establish a parental bond with T.Q.L.[12]  L.L. filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under the Uniform Parentage Act.[13]  The circuit court granted the motion, the Petitioner appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, who transferred the case and the Supreme Court of Missouri, in which they granted.[14]

The Supreme Court of Missouri reviewed the circuit court’s dismissal of M.M.A.’s petition de novo.[15]  The Court began its analysis by looking at the elements of Section 452.375.5(5)(a)[16] to outline the factors necessary for awarding custody in the best interest of the child.[17]  Under the elements of this particular statute, the Court noted that third-party custody or visitation may be awarded “[w]hen the court finds that each parent is unfit, unsuitable, or unable to be a custodian or the welfare of the child requires, and it is in the best interest of the child.”[18]  The Court found that M.M.A.’s petition sufficiently alleged that both L.L. and the child’s unknown biological father were unfit to be custodians of the child.[19]  Additionally, the Court agreed that M.M.A.’s petition also makes sufficient claims that his third-party custody and visitation would be in the best interest of the child.[20]  Lastly, the Court found that M.M.A. had sufficiently alleged facts that supported the idea that he would be a suitable custodian and able to provide a stable environment to T.Q.L.[21]  Therefore, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that M.M.A.’s third amended petition was sufficient to meet the requirements Section 452.375.5(5)(a) and reversed the circuit court’s dismissal and remanded.[22]

II. Legal Background

Section 452.375.5(5)(a) of Missouri’s Domestic Relations statues allows for the court to grant a third party custody or visitation when the child’s biological parents are unfit or unable, or the welfare of the child requires and it would be in the best interest of the child.[23] If either or both of these requirements are met, the court may grant third-party custody or visitation to any person deemed to be suitable and who can provide a stable environment for the child.[24]

III. Comment
This case is fairly significant in the arena of family law. Before this decision, such third-party custody petitions were only recognized if there was a divorce or custody modification proceeding pending.[25]  In fact, case law leading up to this decision held that in the absence of a dissolution, Chapter 452 and its statutes did not apply and a court did not possess subject matter jurisdiction to grant custody to a third party.[26]

However, in light of this decision, the Court seems to suggest the possibility of third parties seeking custody under Chapter 452, instead of relying on a probate court to grant guardianship rights.  This could potentially be a good and bad thing.  Active father figure like M.M.A. can more easily seek custody of their perceived child in the case of parental unfitness.  However, on the other hand, allowing third parties to seek custody under Chapter 452 may open the floodgates to litigants pursuing visitation and custody under these statutes in a way it was never intended.  The case law that follows in the wake of this case will be very telling of just how far the Court will allow these types of third-party custody actions to proceed.

-  Chantal Fink

[1] No. SC 92442 (Mo. Dec. 18, 2012) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=58647.  The West reporter citation is In Re T.Q.L., 386 S.W.3d 135 (Mo. 2012) (en banc).
[2] No. SC 92442 at 2.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at 2-3.
[7] Id. at 3.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at 3-4.
[12] Id. at 4.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at 5.
[15] Id.
[16] RSMo. 452.375.5(5)(a) allows third-party custody or visitation:
When the court finds that each parent is unfit, unsuitable, or unable to be a custodian, or the welfare of the child requires, and it is in the best interests of the child, then custody, temporary custody or visitation may be awarded to any other person or persons deemed by the court to be suitable and able to provide an adequate and stable environment for the child. Before the court awards custody, temporary custody or visitation to a third person under this subdivision, the court shall make that person a party to the action.
[17] No. SC 92442 at 6.
[18] Id.
[19] Id. at 6-7 (the court referencing the Petitioner’s claim that L.L. had falsely hotlined him, had attempted suicide, and that the biological father was unknown and had failed to come forward and assert himself as the father of T.Q.L.).
[20] Id. at 7 (the court referencing the Petitioner’s claim that he had extensive contact with the child, forming a strong bond and also referencing the court-appointed  therapist’s opinion that severance of contact between M.M.A. and T.Q.L. would be detrimental to the child).
[21] Id.
[22] Id. at 8.
[23] RSMo. 452.375.5(5)(a).
[24] Id.
[25] 21 Mo. Prac., Family Law § 13:15 (3d ed.)
[26] Chipman v. Counts, 104 S.W.3d 441 (Mo. Ct. App. S.D. 2003).