In Maryland, the courts are most often faced with situations where there is a need for deep analysis on how to prioritize the best interest of the child in a child custody case.
Generally, these child custody cases are decided based on the role of the parent, other party or third party. The crucial question that decides the order in a child custody case is who is filing for custody, whether the filing party is the parent, de facto parent or third party. Another significant aspect of Maryland child custody law is the award of visitation rights for grandparents.
Role of grandparents in child custody cases
Grandparents have visitation rights in Maryland custody cases in certain circumstances. In a child custody case in Maryland, a grandparent requesting custody or visitation of a minor child is considered as a third party. In certain instances, the grandparent may be considered as a “de facto” parent.
Best interests of the child
In most circumstances, the factor that dominates a child custody order is the best interests of the child. Whether the person filing for child custody is a parent or de facto parent or any third party, the highest priority is given to the best interests of the minor child.
In child custody disputes in Maryland where both parties are parents or the filing, the party is a de facto parent filing for custody against another parent, best interests of the child determines the order in such case. In cases where the filing party is a third party such as a grandparent against parent, there is a need to show exceptional circumstances requiring custody to be granted to the third parties, as a grandparent. If exceptional circumstances cannot be shown, the court requires proof that the parent in question is not a fit person to have custody of the child.
In child custody disputes involving a case filed by a parent against a third party such as a grandparent, the court issues a custody order in favor of the parent unless the third party shows exceptional circumstances requiring custody granted to him/her. At times, the third party may also show proof that the parent or de facto parent is not a fit person to have custody of the child.
If the custody dispute is between third parties, the best interest of the child decides the outcome of the case. An example of this dispute is a case involving maternal grandparents on one side and paternal grandparents on the other side.
An important point to be noted about child custody disputes involving third parties like grandparents is that merely because the third party shows exceptional circumstances or that the other person is not fit to have custody, the court does not order in favor of the third party. On submission of such relevant proof, the third party and the parent or de facto parent stand equally in front of the law and even in such cases, the best interests of the child decide the case.
What constitute exceptional circumstances in Maryland?
Exceptional circumstances are decided based on the following factors:
- The number of years/ months the minor child has stayed away from the biological parent
- Child’ s age when the third party/grandparent started looking after the child
- The psychological impact on the child if custody is removed from the third party like a grandparent
- The lapse of time between the time the third party like grandparent assumed duties of taking care of the child and the time the biological parent reclaimed custody of the child from the third party.
- The nature and strength of the bond between the child and the third party custodian like a grandparent
- The actual intention of the parent to have custody of the child
- The extent of stability about the child’s future if custody is granted to the parent
How does the court decide if a biological parent is unfit in Maryland?
The parent has acted in an extremely harsh manner in his/her acts of neglecting the minor child and has exhibited complete indifference about the child’s best interests. The extent of such indifference is such that it clearly indicates the intention of the parent to deliberately ignore his/her duties regarding the minor child.
Certain situations show that the parent has intentionally abandoned the minor child. In cases where there is adequate proof that the parent remained a mute spectator when another person caused bodily injury to the child or committed acts of mental torture on the child, the parent is considered an unfit parent. If the parent is mentally unwell, then it surely has a negative impact on the minor child and affects his/her ability to care for the child, in such cases, the parent is considered unfit. There are cases where the parent’s acts clearly indicate his/her act of renouncing the parental obligations.
Whether a grandparent may be considered a de facto Parent.
Most people are unaware as to who a de facto parent is. A de facto parent is someone legally treated as a parent due to the bond such parent shares with the child.
To be considered a de facto parent the following should be satisfied:
- One should prove that the biological parent permitted and fostered a bond between the person claiming to be a de facto parent and the minor child.
- The de facto parent has lived with the child
- The de facto parent is capable of taking care of the child in the role of a parent
- There exists a parent-child relationship between the de facto parent and the minor child
A grandparent is not considered a de facto parent but is considered a third party under Maryland code
The right of grandparents as third parties in child custody disputes
Anyone other than a parent or de facto parent is a third party in a child custody dispute. All grandparents and other family members will be considered as third parties in child custody disputes.
Maryland law dealing with grandparents rights in child custody disputes:
Maryland Annotated Code, Family Law Article § 9-102 deals with grandparents rights in Maryland. The amendment that was passed in 1993 states clearly that if a grandparent petition for visitation of a grandchild and if the court finds such request to be in the best interest of the minor child, then such visitation rights will be granted to the grandparent.
The chances of a grandparent succeeding in such petition are completely based on the grandparent pointing out exceptional circumstances. Such exceptional circumstances include a situation where the bond between the grandparent and the grandchild is such that if the grandparent’s petition was denied it would be detrimental to the best interests of the minor child.
Factors considered by the court in deciding grandparent visitation.
The best interests of the minor child are the priority in grandparent visitation cases too. In most cases, the requests of the parent are awarded as a strong presumption exists, that the schedule proposed by the custodial parent is for the best interests of the child.
In 1999, the Supreme Court of the United States discussed the issue of third party visitation in child custody cases in Troxel v. Granville, 120 S.Ct. 2054 (1999). . It was held that the statute which permitted the court to order visitation to the third party solely based on the best interest of the child is unconstitutional
Based on Troxel, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals court held in Brice v. Brice, 133 Md. App. 302 (2000), that the constitutional rights of the mother were violated when the court ordered her to follow its order of extended visitation of a minor child with grandparents. In this case, the court opined that the application of the statute to this case was incorrect as there was order by the court that the parent was unfit or exceptional circumstances existed
Based on these court holdings, it can safely be concluded that the Maryland law holds firmly that parents have a fundamental to have custody of the children and take important decisions of their lives and grandparent can be given visitation only if it proved with clear and convincing evidence that the parents are unfit or exceptional circumstances exist.
If you need a Maryland grandparent’s rights lawyer to help you with a Maryland grandparent’s rights case, call our office at 888-437-7747. Our Maryland grandparent’s rights attorneys can help you. C