If you’re going through a child custody battle, you may have heard about third party custody. We explain what it is and what parents need to know about it.

There are times when a parent or both parents can’t take care of their child anymore. It can happen for a variety of different reasons, which range from tragic when the cause is due to neglect or abuse to sad when a single parent is no longer able to take care of their child. This may be due to a single parent becoming incarcerated.

It can also happen when a parent has mental health or physical reasons they can no longer take care of their child. That’s when a third-party custody arrangement is often sought. Most people don’t know about third party custody unless they one day need it and by then, it’s like trying to catch up with a moving train to take it all in through digestible legal learning chunks.

Read on if you’re involved in a third-party child custody battle or you think one may be happening soon. The informational guide below will explain what third party custody is and how it works, who it affects and how it impacts your life.

What is Third Party Custody?

Florida family law states a non-parent can be given custody of a child through a number of legal channels. There are legal standards and criteria that must be met for all non-parent custody petitions in Florida. A few examples when third party custody can be filed are:

  1. A third party can be given custody if a biological parent provides voluntary consent by signing a document terminating their parental rights. The document enables the court to turn the child over to another family member. Most of the time, if a biological parent is giving another family member custody of their child, a legal advocate will help them go through the legal process.
  2. There are times when a child’s well-being is at risk when they are in the care of their biological parent or parents. A concerned family member can file a third-party petition for concurrent or temporary custody. The third-party petition is filed in the Unified Family Court.
    • If the biological parents don’t consent to this custody arrangement, the family member seeking custody must meet a high standard of proof in court to show the parents to be unfit to care for the child.

In summary, Florida family law allows for a third party relative to petition the court for custody under special circumstances if it’s in the best interest of the child. There are special circumstances and times when the court awards permanent custody of the child to a third party like a child’s grandparents.

The Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act

Florida law states that the courts decide child custody based on the best interests of the child. The best interest of the child has criteria listed under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA is a national set of laws that governs child custody throughout the country.

Child custody is defined as having legal and physical custody, and as such parents with custody are allowed to make decisions about their child’s education, religion, medical care, where they live and discipline. If parents are unable to agree on these decisions, the court can intervene but third-party custody is a much tougher legal bar to reach to get successfully adjudicated in court. Third-party custody can be filed for when a child’s well-being is at risk when they are in the care of their biological parent or parents.

Florida Courts Define Child Custody Terms

If you live in Florida, its the judges who get to decide who gets legal custody, physical custody, joint custody, or third party custody. Judges also determine parental responsibilities and this is when third-party custody comes into play if it’s needed. Third-party custody always takes into consideration several factors.

Of course, the primary and most important consideration a judge considers is what’s in the best interest of the child. It can be helpful if the child is older and can relay their wishes or if the biological parent petitions the court for a third-party custodian for their child. The judge will also take into consideration the best interests of the child based on the relationship the child has with the third party.

Third-Party Custody Rights

If you don’t have the consent of the parents, you must factually represent what has happened to the child who has been abandoned, abused, or neglected by the parent or parents. The definition of abandoned, abused and neglected are found in Florida Statutes Section 39.01. The State of Florida will always defer to the custodial relationship with the parents in a custody situation if its healthy, safe, and if the parent or parents want it.

If you are awarded third party custody rights as a non-parental relative, you’ve already presented a compelling case regarding why you should be awarded custody. But even if you were granted child custody as a non-parental relative those custody rights are granted in temporary form only most of the time. The Supreme Court determined temporary custody for non-parental relatives in Florida through the 2012 Florida case of Slover v. Meyer. 

Florida Case of Slover v. Meyer

The Florida custody dispute of Slover v. Meyer originated between a father’s natural father and the child’s maternal grandparents. The child’s mother was deceased and the child’s maternal grandparents were seeking custody over the father because they felt he was unfit to care for the child due to his history of drug abuse. Evidence was given to the court that proved the father did have a drug abuse problem however the father testified he was seeking drug treatment to help him with his addiction.

The court took the father’s willingness to seek drug abuse treatment into consideration but still awarded temporary custody of the child to the grandparents. But the court also gave the father supervised visitation rights for the next year. If the father could keep up his abstinence from drugs and continue treatment, the father would be allowed unsupervised access to his child.

Over the next year, the father proved to the court he had conquered his addiction and was able to care for his child. At that time, the court modified the custody arrangement and the father’s custody rights were restored. Third-party custody with a non-parental relative is usually temporary in Florida unless there is a compelling, legal reason to give it permanent standing in the court.

Typical Third Party Custody Family Law Form 12.970 (a)

The typical third party custody agreement application starts with you filing the Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12.970 (a) Petition for Temporary Custody by Extended Family. The third-party custody agreement form is what’s needed when you wish to obtain temporary custody of a child or children pursuant to Chapter 751, Florida Statutes. You are considered an extended family member if you are:

  • A relative of a minor child within the third degree to the parent by blood or marriage
  • The stepparent of a minor child if the stepparent is currently married to the parent of the child and isn’t a party to any pending dissolution, separate maintenance, domestic violence, or any other civil or criminal court proceeding. This civil or criminal court proceeding cannot be of a competent jurisdiction involving one or both of the child’s parents as an adverse party.
  • You can file for temporary custody if you have a signed and notarized consent of the child’s legal parent or parents.

You can also file if you’re an extended family member who is caring full time for the child in the role of substitute parent with whom the child has been living for some time and where the child is currently living. If the parent or parents don’t give you consent, you’re going to need a family law attorney to help you fill out the agreement and file the forms in the appropriate court.

Third-Party Guardianship

You can find more information about Florida’s third-party guardianship in Chapter 744, Florida Statutes. The court rules that the relationships between the court, the minor, the guardian, and others have statutes and rules that describe the specific duties and obligations as guardians. These statutes and rules are in place to help protect the best interest of the minor.

The guardian serves as a surrogate decision-maker that’s appointed by the court to make either personal or financial decisions for the minor or even for an adult if they have mental or physical disabilities. After the court adjudicates the case, the guardianship is termed a ‘ward.’

Your Next Step

Your next step may be your most important one if you are seeking third party custody. There’s nothing easy about this court process and you need to be prepared for everything while hoping for the best. Child custody is emotionally stressful no matter the circumstances but if you’re involved in third party custody issues, need the best counsel a family law attorney can give you.

Reach out to The Law Office of Erin Morse so the child that needs you doesn’t lose one more day to uncertainty and fear. No child should ever be left in an unsafe or unknown home. With the help of the Law Office of Erin Morse, you’ll come to know this law office serves as one of the child’s most fierce child advocates and they won’t stop until the child is safe and in a healthy environment.