Third Party Custody

When biological parents cannot take care of their children or do not want custody of their children anymore, the courts may award custody to a third party, such as a grandparent or other relative. Third-party custody cases, also referred to as non-parent custody, are typically emotionally charged, contested, and highly complex.

If you are a parent contesting a third-party custody decision or if you are a relative of the child seeking third-party custody, consult a family law attorney at Crouse Erickson in Spokane, Washington to discuss your case. Our firm accepts all types of challenging third party custody cases, including those involving desertion, abuse, and neglect. Contact us at 509-624-1380 to speak with a lawyer.

When might the courts grant child custody to a third party?

There are various circumstances under which a court might consider granting custody to a third party. For instance, the biological parents may be unable to fulfill their parental responsibilities, due to incapacitation, incarceration, or death. Some parents may voluntarily relinquish custody of their children and agree to allow someone else to raise them. In most cases, a third-party custody case arises when a relative of a child files a petition with the court for custody on the grounds that the biological parent is unfit.

In custody cases, the courts generally begin with the presumption that it is in the best interests of the child to have time with both parents. But this is not always the case. Sometimes there are factors that endanger the child if s/he stays with the biological parents. The courts might grant custody to a third party when the biological parents:

  • Have abused or neglected the child
  • Have a major substance abuse problem
  • Deliberately abandoned the child
  • Are engaged in conduct that is so immoral that it is detrimental to the child
  • Cannot provide adequate care, shelter, or safety for the child

The Complexities of Third Party Custody Cases

For a third-party (i.e., petitioner) to receive custody of a child, the court must find that the biological or adoptive parents are unfit or unwilling to care for the child. The petitioner in these cases is typically a closely-related family member (e.g., a grandparent, aunt, or uncle) who is seeing third-party custody.

In many cases, the petitioner will not receive full custody of the child; rather, the court will place restrictions on the parents’ rights to raise the child.

Third-party custody cases are challenging to win. Petitioners will need ample evidence that proves the natural parent is unfit and that it is in the best interest of the child for the courts to grant custody to the petitioner.

Conversely, natural parents trying to defend their parenting and retain their custody rights will need evidence that combats the petitioner’s claim and that proves that they are, in fact, fit to parent.

Each custody case is unique. The courts will take various factors into consideration when making a determination. For instance, they may consider:

  • The child’s previous relationship to the third-party petitioner
  • The petitioner’s and the parents’ financial and occupational backgrounds
  • The relationship between the petitioner and the biological parents
  • Any other factors that may affect the well-being of the child

If you are seeking or defending custody, consult a third party custody lawyer for help establishing your case and for information about how best to proceed.

Can Someone Who Loses Custody of Their Children to A Third Party Ever Get It Back?

Yes, and recent changes in Washington state law have actually made it somewhat easier to do so. Prior to July 1, 2019, regaining custody of the child after losing a third-party custody action was extremely difficult. In order to do so, the biological parent had to prove that both their child and the third party’s situation had changed since custody was first awarded to the third party and that it was in the child’s best interest to restore custody to their biological parents. This is an extremely high bar, especially because courts tend to view any disruption to a child’s living arrangements to be at least somewhat detrimental. A biological parent, therefore, had to prove that the child’s interests would be so much better served living with their parents that the negative impact of disruption would be outweighed.

However, the Washington Court of Appeals recently found that standard to be unconstitutional. In a case called In re Custody of S.M. and A.M., the court decided that because the law only allows a biological parent to lose custody because someone else demonstrates the biological parent is unfit to raise a child, the biological parent must be allowed to regain custody if he or she can show that they are no longer unfit. To require a higher standard would be to violate the fourteenth amendment, which says that no one can be deprived of their rights without due process. Therefore, a third party who succeeds in gaining custody of their niece or their granddaughter could see a court award custody back to the child’s parents if the parents can show that they have meaningfully changed their circumstances. This showing will still require believable evidence to back it up, of course

Consult a third-party custody attorney at Crouse Erickson today.

The family law attorneys at David J. Crouse and Associates often work with non-traditional or blended family situations. We handle all cases with the attention and compassion our clients — and especially the children involved — deserve. We have helped all types of Spokane clients, such as step-parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, resume relationships with children or obtain primary placement of children.

If you are attempting to establish visitation or custody of a child, or wish to contest a non-parent’s visitation or custody, our attorneys can advise and represent you. We invite you to contact our Spokane office for an appointment to discuss your rights and obligations in a third-party custody action: 509-624-1380.

Crouse Erickson