District of Columbia
In Pleasant v. Gibson, 22-FM-264 (D.C. Ct. App. December 15, 2022), a grandfather appealed the trial court’s decision that he did not have standing to intervene in the custody case concerning his minor grandchild. The grandfather sought to gain custody of his grandchild after the grandchild’s mother died. The child’s father also sought to gain custody of the child.
Under District of Columbia law, there is a three-step process for a third party to obtain custody of a child. The steps are distinct and sequential. First, the third party must establish standing to intervene in the custody proceeding. Next, the third party must rebut the presumption favoring parental custody by clear and convincing evidence unless there is parental consent to the third party’s custody. Lastly, the court must determine that third-party custody is in the child’s best interest.
The Court explained that under D.C. Code § 16-831.02(a)(1)(C), a third party may file a motion to intervene in any existing action involving custody of a child if the third party is living with the child and some exceptional circumstances exist such that third-party custody is necessary to prevent harm to the child.
At the time the grandfather sought to intervene in the child custody action, he stated that the minor child was living with him. The trial court concluded that the grandfather had not shown exceptional circumstances, noting that it had not made a finding rebutting the parental presumption. The Court found that this was an error. The trial court improperly injected the parental presumption into the first step of the third-party custody analysis. The Court explained that at the first step of the analysis, the court must decide, without considering the presumption in favor of parental custody, whether the third party’s motions set forth some exceptional circumstance such that relief is necessary to prevent harm.
The Court explained that if the grandfather succeeds in establishing standing to intervene, the trial court must then consider whether he can rebut the parental presumption by clear and convincing evidence. If the trial court finds that the grandfather carried this burden, then the trial court should move to the third and final step of the analysis and assess the child’s best interests.
The Court vacated the trial court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings.