There are many individuals who assume the role as a parent for a child they are not biologically related to. Florida provides a great deal of protections for children and their parents, however, those who are not biologically related to a child may face a significant battle when seeking custody. Therefore, it is important to fully understand the rights of a non-biological “parent” and the legal options available to these individuals seeking parental rights and recognition.
In the State of Florida, there is a strong presumption and protection of the parent child relationship. There is a presumption that it is in the best interest of the child that the parents maintain a custodial relationship over the child, and keep the family unit together. However, this presumption is rebuttable and parents can lose their custodial privileges. Those who may seek to claim custody over a non-biological child include blood relatives or step parents. If seeking to obtain custody of a child, the non-biological parent must present a compelling case to the court displaying that it is in the best interest of the child to be within the care and custody of the non-biological parent. Generally, the court only will award custody to this non biological parent when there is a finding that the biological parent is unfit, has deserted the child, passed away, or consented to the arrangement.
Florida courts have recently dealt with these issues and have granted custody to non-biological parents in different cases. In Slover v. Meyer, the biological mother had passed away and the maternal grandparents petitioned the court for custody of the child. The grandparents claimed the father was unfit to care for the child based upon his drug use. However, the father was noted has actively seeking treatment and rehabilitation. The court found it was in the best interest of the child to be placed in the custody of the grandparents on a temporary basis and provide the father with supervised visitation. As time progressed, the father was able to seek a modification of the temporary custody through the display of his rehabilitation and ability to properly care for his child. The court then restored his full custodial rights. This case provides a clear picture as to the reverence given to the biological parent while still providing for the best interest of the child by awarding non-biological parents with temporary custody.
In Thomas v. Joseph, the husband had an extramarital affair that resulted in the birth of a child, Z.J.. After the birth, the biological mother of the child gave the husband and wife Z.J to raise. The husband and wife later divorced, and the trial court held the wife, although having no biological connection to the child, would retain primary custody and the husband would be granted weekend visitation. Husband, 5 years later, sought modification of the custody arrangement. The trial court removed the child from the wife’s custody, finding that she retained no parental or custodial rights due to the lack of biological relationship to the child. The wife appealed. The First District Court of Appeals held, that the original trial court ruling providing wife with parental rights “may well have been error for the final judgment… But the final judgment was never appealed and there is no indication in the record that any party ever challenged its validity until [the former husband’s] petition for modification was filed five and a half years later.” Therefore, wife “correctly relies on the final judgment of dissolution as the status quo for these parties' parental responsibilities and timesharing… [and] the final judgment is equally effective to establish [the former husband’s] status as Z.J.'s father and [the former wife’s] parental status with shared parental responsibility and majority timesharing.” Thomas v. Joseph, 1D19-0102 (Fla. 1st DCA September 18, 2019). Although this case provided the wife, a non-biological parent, with custodial rights, these rights were only granted due to the original erroneous judgment made by the trial court. Therefore, it is important to fully understand your rights with regard to a nonbiological child and seek proper court action if you wish to obtain custodial rights.
Non biological “parents” have avenues to seek legal recognition of their parental involvement in a child’s life. However, the process can be legally complex and involve a great deal of litigation. Therefore, employ the assistance of an experienced child custody attorney to ensure you provide the best arguments for your claim of legal parental rights to a child you already emotionally recognize as your own.
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