Custody is usually decided between Mom and Dad. After all that is the point of a custody order -- to decide with whom the kids will live when. If Mom and Dad are living together, there is no custody to decide. If only one parent is available for some reason such as hospitalization, incarceration or sadly, death, then that parent gets custody.
Grandparents have few rights to get custody of kids. If Mom and Dad are both around, they have almost no chance. Even if one parent is gone, the parents of the missing parent do not just step into the void created and act as the other parent. The surviving available parent is sole custodian of the children. With all the rights to determine who sees the child when as before.
Grandparents can get custody but there are some hurdles to overcome. In Maryland you have to show extraordinary circumstances and unfitness of parents. These two actually go hand in hand. If the parent is unfit, there are extraordinary circumstances. If there are substance abuse issues or incarcerations, the parents are not fit to have custody. Usually in those situations, the child has been left with a grandparent anyway. The grandparent then is really just getting the court to recognize legally what the situation actually is. The grandparents are the primary caregivers of the child, making all the decisions for the child.
But what happens when both parents are gone? That situation is playing out in a Missouri Courtroom beginning June 11. The underlying facts are as follows: Jovan Belcher of the Kansis City Chiefs shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his child last fall. He then drove to Arrowhead stadium and killed himself in front of his coaches. This left a little girl with no parents. His mother was present for the shooting. In the immediate aftermath, she began caring for the child. She allowed the parents of Perkins to take the child to Texas for her mother's funeral. The Perkins family then refused to return the child. The child is currently being cared for by a cousin of Perkins.
It is up to a judge to decide which family it is in the child's best interest to live with. He will have to look at a lot of factors, not the least why this child is an orphan. He will also have to evaluate whether the requests to care for the child are motivated by true love and affection for the child or money. You see the child is quite wealthy. There is insurance money as well as a fund set up for her. Whoever gets custody will most likely get control of the money.
Of course, the court could craft a compromise. Physical custody with one family, visitation with the other. Although until the child is old enough to travel alone (which won't be for years, she is only 8 months old now), the families will have to meet. How do the families meet knowing that a member of the Belcher family killed a member of the Perkins family, leading to the current situation? As for the money, both grandmothers could be appointed joint trustees with a requirement for agreement on any spending. That should keep any one family from exploiting the child.
This is one of the hard ones. Deciding custody between two fit parents is hard enough. Add in a murder and it becomes the stuff that keeps judges awake at night.