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Unique Child Custody Battle Leads to Reaffirmation of the Rights of Fit Parents

The Texas Supreme Court has granted a North Texas father full custody of his daughter, ending a years-long saga that captured headlines across the state and setting a legal precedent in the process.

The facts of the case, In Re Christopher John Clay, are heartbreaking. Chris Clay had a daughter with his longtime girlfriend, Arli Wilkes, in 2014. Chris and Arli weren’t married but they worked hard to be good co-parents. Eventually they broke up and Arli moved in with another man. Chris and Arli went through custody mediation and reached a 50-50 custody agreement.

Then, tragedy struck in 2018 when Arli died in a car accident. A few weeks later, Arli’s parents — the daughter’s grandparents — filed for child custody. This by itself was unsurprising, since Chris said his daughter spent significant time with her grandparents due to his and Arli’s work schedules. What no one expected was that Arli’s new boyfriend would file for custody, too.

Texas law says that an adult who has spent six months helping with the care, control or possession of a child has legal standing to seek custody of the child. Arli and her boyfriend had lived together for about 11 months at the time of her death and he was present whenever Ann stayed with Arli under the custody agreement.

A Denton County judge dismissed the grandparents’ case and ruled that Chris would have to share custody with the boyfriend, whom he had met only one time. The father and daughter were both shocked by this outcome, and even more shocked when the appeals court upheld the decision. Chris then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court., which unanimously reversed the lower courts.

The high court ruled that the lower courts had violated Chris’s constitutional rights as a fit parent, that the father and daughter should be reunited permanently and that Arli’s boyfriend, an unrelated third-party, had no parental rights. “When a nonparent requests conservatorship or possession of a child, the child’s best interest is embedded with the presumption that it is the fit parent — not a court — who makes the determination whether to allow that request,” Justice Jane Bland wrote.

Thanks to this case, the law in Texas is now clear: if a fit parent does not want to share custody with a nonparent, then the nonparent is without legal recourse.

If you are facing a child custody dispute, reach out to the North Texas firm of Hayes, Berry, White & Vanzant, LLP. Our family law attorneys are kind and compassionate, while fighting hard to protect your parental rights. Please call 940-230-2386 or contact us online to arrange a consultation. We have offices in Denton, Flower Mound, Gainesville and Celina for your convenience.

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