The legal standard for custody decisions in divorce cases is the best interests of the child. Sometimes that means custody may go to a third party, like a grandparent – even when a parent is available.
For example, in In Re the Matter of: Paternity of W.M.T. (Ind. App. 2021), the Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed the trial court’s decision to award custody of a minor child to the paternal grandmother, despite the objections of the child’s mother.
What does it take to get custody of a grandchild over a parent’s objections?
Every case is fact-specific and the court will look at the totality of the situation when they make custody decisions.
In the W.M.T case, the minor child was born in 2008 to an unmarried couple. The child’s father brought a paternity action and was awarded primary physical custody of the child, while the mother was given parenting time and ordered to pay support.
For all practical purposes, the child was actually raised by the paternal grandmother. She not only served as the child’s primary caregiver, but she made all of the medical, religious and educational decisions on the child’s behalf.
When the father died in 2019, the child’s mother sought custody and an end to her support obligation. After several twists and turns, the trial court awarded primary legal and physical custody to the paternal grandmother. The mother appealed.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision. The appellate court noted that when any third party seeks custody over the rights of the child’s natural parent that “a trial court must be satisfied by clear and convincing evidence that the best interests of the child require such a placement.”
The Court of Appeals applied “best interests of the child” statute to the facts of the situation and noted:
- The child was deeply rooted in their current living situation
- The child expressed a preference to remain with their grandmother
- There were concerns about past physical violence by the mother toward the child
- There were concerns about the mother’s mental health
With all that in mind, the Court of Appeals held that the lower court’s decision was proper, awarding both custody and support to the child’s grandmother.