This month, the Third District Court of Appeal of Florida (“3d DCA”) in Lifleur v. Webster, 2014 WL 1814156 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014) reversed a lower court’s holding that denied a mother’s (“LiFleur”) emergency motion to terminate an agreed temporary orderof custody/parental responsibility and also vested it in the child’s stepmother. The 3d DCA reasoned that the granted temporary custody order to the father was rendered unenforceable by the father’s long-term incarceration and required the trial court to return custody to the mother absent clear and convincing evidence she was unfit to care for her own child.
LiFleur and Nathan Webster, Jr. (“Webster”) had a child in 1999, and the mother, LiFleur had custody following his birth. A few months later, she was admitted to a mental health center after experiencing mental difficulties and therefore the child went back in forth between her mother and father for the next few years after Webster filed a motion for custody.
In a 2004 settlement agreement, LiFleur and Webster agreed that she would be the primary residential parent of their child even though she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and agreed to notify Webster if she had any recurring issues. Moreover, if any problems came up, Webster would be entitled to immediate custody. After multiple admittances into a mental health facility, the child stayed with Webster in 2008 for the school year and then was returned to LiFleur. However in late 2009, she was arrested on a charge of child neglect. In 2010, after Webster filed for emergency temporary custody, the court granted sole custody to Webster and required LiFleur to undergo a mental evaluation prior to having any time with their child. For a few months, the child was in the continuous custody of Webster and his wife, Jennifer.
Thereafter in 2011, Webster was indicted and convicted in Ohio on several counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and in June of 2012, was sentenced to twelve years in Ohio state prison. Despite this incarceration, the child remained in Ohio where his stepmother, Jennifer, cared for him.
After numerous motions from LiFleur to gain custody back of her child, the court found it was in the child’s best interest to be with his stepmother, Jennifer, and his parental grandmother. The lower court also determined that LiFleur had not completed the requirements of the 2010 order that she complete a mental health examination and provided the results to the court.
In 2012, LiFleur finally alleged she was ready and willing to submit to a complete psychiatric evaluation, consistent with all the court’s previous orders. In 2013, after a report concluded that she was emotionally stable and compliant with her bipolar treatment, LiFleur filed another motion to terminate child custody with Webster and vest custody with her instead. After an evidentiary hearing, which included evidence of LiFleur’s treatment, medication, and therapy, and Jennifer’s testimony that the child was doing well in Ohio, the court denied LiFleur’s motion and directed that the child remain with his stepmother and paternal grandmother.
On appeal, the 3d DCA began a discussion of a parent’s fundamental right to make decisions regarding the care, custody, and management of their children. When a dispute is between two natural parents, the test to be applied involves the determination of the child’s best interests. Contrary, where there is a dispute between a natural and a non-natural parent such as a step parent, the natural parent should only be denied custody where such custody will, in fact, be detrimental to the welfare of the child. To hold otherwise would permit improper governmental intrusion into the fundamental rights of natural parents who are fit to raise their children. Therefore, a trial court cannot engage in a “best interest” analysis unless proof arises that sufficiently establish parental unfitness.
As the 2010 Temporary Order suggested, Webster would have custody until such time LiFleur successfully completed a mental evaluation and sought reunification. Because Webster’s long-term incarceration rendered this order unenforceable because he was no longer legally and practically capable of fulfilling his role, the 3d DCA held that the lower court erred in not granting LiFleur’s motion to terminate the order and grant her custody.
Therefore, given the now-unenforceable 2010 order, LiFleur’s constitutional and fundamental right as the child’s natural parent, and her on-going successful treatment of her bipolar disorder, the lower court was required to return custody to the natural parent in the absence of clear and convincing proof that she was unfit or abandoned the child. No proof was presented at the evidentiary hearing. Instead of the burden being on LiFleur to prove fitness, it should be on Webster to prove that LiFleur was unfit. Moreover, the lower court’s reliance upon the child’s best interests and the appearance he was doing well with his stepmother in Ohio was erroneous. Under all the facts above, the 3d DCA reasoned that denying LiFleur’s motion for custody was in error, and reversed their holding.
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