Probate Court, Family Court and Child Custody

When parents have a child with permanent disabilities and subsequently divorce, the continued care of the child past the age of majority becomes a potential source of conflict in the courts.  Usually, when a child reaches majority and does not attend college, the child is emancipated and no longer governed by the Parenting Plan set forth in the divorce.  However, Missouri law specifically provides that if the child has a medical condition that prevents independent living, the jurisdiction of the family court continues, potentially indefinitely.

If the parents had not divorced and the child turned eighteen, the parents would have to petition the probate court for legal guardianship over the child, setting forth the medical condition and the reasons for guardianship.  In this manner, the probate court would give legal control over financial, housing, medical and other key decisions to the parents.

Unlike the family law proceeding, where the statutes are not explicit about custody, only support, the probate code is explicit about control over all legal decision making.  Our courts have interpreted the family law statute relating to extending support indefinitely due to disability to apply also to child custody.

It would appear having dual tracks allows for potential conflict.  In that situation, which court controls?

This week, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals answered that question in the case, In re the Matter of S.J.M.  Mother and father had a son with Down Syndrome.  When the parties divorced, the court awarded them joint legal and joint physical custody.  After the son turned eighteen, mother petitioned for guardianship in the probate court.  Father moved to dismiss for want of jurisdiction, claiming that the family court still retained control over the custody and support of their son.  The probate court disagreed and ultimately awarded mother sole guardianship of the son.

The Eastern District reviewed the matter on the issue of which court had authority to proceed.  Because the son had not yet graduated high school, and had a medical disability that rendered him incapable of managing his affairs independently, the appellate court found the family court still had control over the care and custody of the son.  While the probate court also had authority to consider guardianship, it cannot enter a judgment inconsistent with the family court judgment while the family court judgment still remains in effect.  When the probate court issued its guardianship, it altered a joint legal custody award into a sole legal custody award – something only the family court had the authority to do.

In short, the Eastern District decided that in all cases where a child has a disability that prevents independent control of affairs after majority, and the parents already operate under a Parenting Plan entered by the family court, whether through a divorce or a paternity action, the family court retains primary authority to decide the custodial and support arrangements for that adult dependent, and the probate court cannot interfere unless its judgment is consistent with that of the family court.  The Eastern District did not hold that only the family court could act in this situation, but it seems that question is answered implicitly.  One judge in the case, however, felt the legislature should clear up this confusion and give one court singular authority.

This is an important decision for all parents of children who have disabilities so severe that they will need management of their affairs after the age of majority.

If you have additional questions about the care and custody of a disabled child after majority, contact us – we can help.