In re Marriage of Brownfield

Annotate this Case
NO. 4-95-0964

IN THE APPELLATE COURT

OF ILLINOIS

FOURTH DISTRICT

In Re: the Marriage of ) Appeal from
MARC A. BROWNFIELD, ) Circuit Court of
Petitioner, ) Champaign County
and ) No. 89C575
JOAN M. MADRIGAL, f/k/a JOAN N. )
BROWNFIELD, )
Respondent-Appellant, )
and ) Honorable
CYNTHIA A. BROWNFIELD, ) Harry E. Clem,
Intervenor-Appellee. ) Judge Presiding.
________________________________________________________________

JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the opinion of the court:
In January 1995, intervenor Cynthia Brownfield (Cindy),
stepmother of two minor children, Shane and Tanya Brownfield
(born April 10, 1985 and October 20, 1987, respectively) brought
a petition for custody in the underlying dissolution action after
the children's father, Marc Brownfield, died. The circuit court
found Cindy had standing to seek custody and awarded custody of
both children to Cindy.
The children's natural mother, Joan Madrigal (f/k/a
Joan Brownfield), appeals arguing the court erred in holding
Cindy had standing to seek custody of the children under section
601(b)(2) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage
Act (Act) (750 ILCS 5/601(b)(2) (West 1994)). We conclude that
the children were not in Joan's physical custody when Cindy filed
her petition for custody and, therefore, affirm the circuit court's judgment that Cindy had standing to seek custody under
the Act.
Petitioner Marc Brownfield and Joan were married on No-
vember 29, 1981. Two children were born to the parties: a son,
Shane, and a daughter, Tanya. The parties separated in April
1988 and, on May 19, 1989, the court entered a judgment of disso-
lution of marriage. The judgment incorporated the marital set-
tlement agreement of the parties which provided that Marc would
receive custody of Shane and Joan would receive custody of Tanya,
subject to liberal visitation by each party with the child not in
his or her custody.
In September 1989, Joan asked Marc to take custody of
Tanya because Joan was experiencing physical difficulties and be-
lieved it would be in Tanya's best interest to live with her
father and brother. Thus, on September 28, 1989, pursuant to a
stipulation by the parties, the court entered an order modifying
the judgment order of dissolution, and awarding Marc the perma-
nent care, custody and control of both children, subject to lib-
eral rights of visitation with Joan. The court also ordered Joan
to pay Marc $200 per month per child as child support, beginning
in September 1989.
Intervenor Cindy and her daughter Emily moved into
Marc's home in June 1990. Marc and Cindy were married on April
1, 1991. Marc, Cindy, Emily, Shane, and Tanya resided together
as a family from June 1990 until Marc's death from cancer on
January 10, 1995.
On January 10, 1995, Cindy filed a petition to inter-
vene in the parties' dissolution action and a petition for tempo-
rary and permanent custody of Shane and Tanya. That day, the
court entered an order indicating Cindy's petition to intervene
should be allowed and awarding her temporary emergency custody of
the children. Joan filed her answer to Cindy's petition on Feb-
ruary 2, 1995, in which she requested permanent custody of the
children. Joan raised no affirmative defenses to Cindy's peti-
tion for custody in her answer.
On March 1, 1995, a hearing on temporary custody was
held, at the conclusion of which the court awarded Cindy tempo-
rary custody of the children and set the hearing on permanent
custody for August 23, 1995. Then, on July 17, 1995, Joan filed
a motion to dismiss Cindy's petition, asserting for the first
time Cindy lacked standing to seek custody of the children under
section 601(b)(2) of the Act. A hearing on the motion to dismiss
was held on August 4, 1995, and, on August 17, 1995, the court
denied the motion because it found the standing issue involved
disputed issues of material fact which could not be resolved in a
summary manner.
A full evidentiary hearing took place on August 23 and
24, 1995, on the issues of standing and permanent custody. On
September 7, 1995, the court entered its order, finding the evi-
dence established that Cindy had standing to seek custody of the
children and that, based on the evidence presented as to the
children's best interests, the presumption in favor of Joan as
custodial parent under the superior rights doctrine had been
overcome. Thus, the court awarded the permanent care, custody
and control of the children to Cindy, subject to Joan's visita-
tion rights which are detailed in the order.
Joan filed a motion to reconsider on September 20,
1995, asserting the court erred (1) in its determination of the
standing issue, (2) in its best interests determination, and (3)
in its determination the presumption in favor of Joan as to cus-
tody of the children had been overcome. The court denied the
motion to reconsider on November 9, 1995, and this appeal fol-
lowed.
As a threshold issue, Cindy argues Joan waived the
issue of standing by not raising it either in a motion to dis-
miss, filed before her answer, or in her answer. Joan filed her
answer in February 1995 and a temporary custody hearing was held
in March 1995, yet she did not raise the affirmative defense of
standing until she filed her motion to dismiss in July 1995.
Lack of standing is an affirmative defense to be raised
within the time for pleading. 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West
1994). However, the trial court has discretion to allow parties
to file late pleadings and may do so unless it can be demonstrat-
ed the opposing party would be prejudiced by the late filing.
In re Custody of McCarthy, 157 Ill. App. 3d 377, 380-81, 510 N.E.2d 555, 557 (1987).
The record does not strongly suggest Cindy was prej-
udiced by the late presentation of the standing issue. The scope
of inquiry is very broad at a best interests hearing and the
facts brought out at such a hearing are frequently also relevant
to the determination of standing. Because the court ruled on the
motion to dismiss only after a full evidentiary hearing, at which
Cindy was able to present substantial evidence on the standing
issue, we conclude the court did not abuse its discretion in
allowing Joan to raise the affirmative defense in her motion to
dismiss filed July 17, 1995.
We next address the substance of Joan's contention that
the circuit court erred in finding Cindy had standing to seek
custody of the children under the Act. Section 601(b)(2) of the
Act sets forth:
(b) A child custody proceeding is com-
menced in the court:
* * *
(2) by a person other than a
parent, by filing a petition for
custody of the child in the county
in which he is permanently resident
or found, but only if he is not in
the physical custody of one of his
parents." (Emphasis added.) 750
ILCS 5/601(b)(2) (West 1994).
The superior right of a natural parent to custody of his or her
child is recognized and protected in the Act by requiring a non-
parent seeking custody to meet the standing requirement embodied
in section 601(b)(2) of the Act before being considered for cus-
tody under the best interests standard set forth in section 602
of the Act (750 ILCS 5/602 (West 1994)). In re Petition of
Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d 468, 491, 649 N.E.2d 324, 335 (1995). To
establish standing, a nonparent must show a child is "not in the
physical custody of one of his parents" before she can seek cus-
tody of the child. 750 ILCS 5/601(b)(2) (West 1994); see also
Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d at 491, 649 N.E.2d at 335; In re Custody of
Barokas, 109 Ill. App. 3d 536, 541, 440 N.E.2d 1036, 1040 (1982).
Courts have consistently rejected the argument that
physical possession equals physical custody; the term physical
custody encompasses the legal right to the care, physical posses-
sion, and control of a child. Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d at 491, 649 N.E.2d at 335; see also In re Custody of Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d 48, 53-54, 491 N.E.2d 1150, 1152-53 (1986).
Joan presents two arguments in support of her position
that Cindy lacks standing under section 601(b)(2) of the Act.
First, she asserts that under Peterson and its progeny, upon the
death of Marc, she was vested with constructive physical custody
of the children. See In re Marriage of Gustafson, 181 Ill. App.
3d 472, 536 N.E.2d 1359 (1989). Joan's second argument is that
in determining whether she voluntarily relinquished custody of
the children, the court should look at her actions after the
death of Marc, not before.
In the dissolution action in Peterson, both parents
sought custody of the child and both were found fit to have cus-
tody, yet the trial court awarded the mother custody, subject to
the father's liberal rights of visitation. Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d
at 51, 491 N.E.2d at 1151. The child and her mother lived with
the mother's parents, who assisted the mother in caring for the
child, due to the mother's illness. The father lived on the same
block as the child and mother and regularly exercised his visita-
tion rights. When the mother eventually died of her illness, the
grandparents would not release the child to her father, and he
petitioned for custody under the Act.
The grandparents asserted a claim to custody, which the
father immediately contested, arguing that under section
601(b)(2) of the Act, the grandparents did not have standing to
seek custody of his child. The supreme court agreed, holding
that the grandparents did not have standing merely because they
were in physical possession of the child when the petition for
custody was filed. The court reasoned that as the mother had
been in constant physical custody of the child and the father had
reasonably exercised his rights of visitation, the father gained
physical custody upon the mother's death, thus barring the grand-
parents from having standing to seek custody. Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54, 491 N.E.2d at 1153.
Although under Illinois law, a noncustodial parent is
not automatically vested with custody upon the death of the cus-
todial parent (Milenkovic v. Milenkovic, 93 Ill. App. 3d 204,
212, 416 N.E.2d 1140, 1145 (1981); McCarthy, 157 Ill. App. 3d at
383, 510 N.E.2d at 558; see also Mackie v. Mackie, 88 Ill. App.
2d 61, 67, 232 N.E.2d 184, 188 (1967)), Peterson established that
when the noncustodial parent has not been found unfit, and has
regularly exercised visitation and demonstrated interest in the
child, it is proper that he be vested with custody upon the death
of the custodial parent. Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54, 491 N.E.2d
at 1153.
In Gustafson, relied upon by Joan, this court noted
that immediately following the death of the custodial parent,
legal custody of a child is not in anyone, since the death of a
custodial parent does not automatically revert custody to the
surviving parent. Gustafson, 181 Ill. App. 3d at 477, 536 N.E.2d
at 1361-62. The Gustafson court commented on the trial court's
role in modifying custody orders, stating "[w]e note the validity
of the trial court's suggestion when it emphasized the importance
of the dissolution court's sole jurisdiction to change physical
custody." Gustafson, 181 Ill. App. 3d at 479, 536 N.E.2d at
1362. However, consistent with Peterson, the court held that a
parent determined fit, who had maintained reasonable visitation
and interest in his child, should not be required to litigate the
issue of custody at a best interests hearing and, therefore, was
vested with custody following the custodial parent's abandonment
of the children. Gustafson, 181 Ill. App. 3d at 479, 536 N.E.2d
at 1363.
The present case is distinguishable from Peterson and
Gustafson in several respects. First, in Peterson, the custody
arrangement was determined by the court, rather than by agreement
of the parties, as is the case here. We agree with the statement
by Justice Dunn in his dissent in In re Marriage of Carey, 188
Ill. App. 3d 1040, 1053, 544 N.E.2d 1293, 1301 (1989) (Dunn, J.,
dissenting), that an agreement by one spouse that the other
spouse have custody of their child is not tantamount to an aban-
donment or loss of interest in the child. Nonetheless, while one
parent's agreement that the other receive custody should not be
dispositive on the issue of voluntary relinquishment, such an
agreement, and the reasons behind it, are factors which the court
can properly consider.
Another factor courts look to when a parent allows
someone else to maintain physical possession of his/her child is
that parent's intentions and expectations when relinquishing the
child to the care of another. See Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54,
491 N.E.2d at 1153; Carey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at 1049, 544 N.E.2d
at 1298; Montgomery v. Roudez, 156 Ill. App. 3d 262, 509 N.E.2d 499 (1987). One point the court found significant in Peterson
was that in the time the child lived with her mother and grand-
parents, it would not have occurred to the natural father that
the grandparents were developing a position of standing by living
with the child.
Here, Joan was aware of Marc's and Cindy's relationship
and knew that a mother-child relationship was developing between
Cindy and the children over the years. Yet, even knowing that
strong bonds were forming between Cindy and the children, Joan
chose to live in distant states, visited with the children infre-
quently, and never attempted to have a court modify her custody
arrangement with Marc. In relinquishing physical possession of
the children indefinitely and maintaining only an attenuated
relationship with them while they were being reared by Marc and
Cindy, Joan must reasonably have expected that parent-child rela-
tionships were developing between Cindy and the children. This
is in contrast with Peterson, where the court found there was no
evidence a parental relationship had developed between the child
and her grandparents. See Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54, 491 N.E.2d at 1153.
Even if we do not give significant weight to Joan's
custody agreement with Marc or her expectations as to the kind of
relationships that would result therefrom, there is substantial
additional evidence indicating that she voluntarily relinquished
custody of the children, which brings us to the most significant
difference between Peterson and the present case.
In Peterson, the court found it extremely significant
that the father had vigorously, regularly exercised his visita-
tion rights. Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54, 491 N.E.2d at 1153.
In the present case, the evidence demonstrated that from Septem-
ber 1989 until after Marc's death in 1995, Joan visited with the
children only four times; specifically, in the summer of 1990,
the winter and summer of 1991, and the summer of 1992. After the
visit in the summer of 1992, Joan did not again visit with the
children until March 1995, when she traveled to Illinois for the
hearing on temporary custody. Joan did not contact Marc to re-
quest any visitation with the children in 1994. This is despite
the fact that she had been granted liberal visitation rights and
Marc and Cindy had been cooperative in arranging visits in the
past. We agree with the trial court's conclusion that Marc and
Cindy did not impede Joan in developing a relationship with the
children, as she has contended.
Not only did Joan fail to exercise visitation regular-
ly, she also failed to maintain regular correspondence or tele-
phone contact with the children. At the hearing, she admitted
that she did not telephone the children or write to them monthly,
or even bimonthly. One fact which is indicative of the infre-
quency of contact between Joan and the children is that Joan at-
tempted to send a package to Tanya for her birthday in September
1994, only to discover Marc, Cindy, and the children had moved to
a new house four months earlier in June 1994.
As Justice Green observed in his special concurrence in
Gustafson, if a noncustodial parent continually shows interest in
a child and promptly seeks custody upon the death of the custodi-
al parent, courts will imply a constructive physical custody in
favor of the noncustodial parent. Gustafson, 181 Ill. App. 3d at
481, 536 N.E.2d at 1364 (Green, J., specially concurring); see
Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54, 491 N.E.2d at 1153. Here, however,
the evidence demonstrated Joan failed to maintain the kind of
active and ongoing contact with the children as contemplated in
Peterson.
In addition to the specific rules the courts have fash-
ioned for custody situations where the custodial parent has died
or manifestly abandoned a child, the courts have indicated sever-
al factors which should be considered in making the determination
of whether a child is "not in the physical custody of one of his
parents." 750 ILCS 5/601(b)(2) (West 1994). Such factors in-
clude (1) who was responsible for the care and welfare of the
child prior to the initiation of custody proceedings; (2) the
manner in which physical possession of a child was acquired; and
(3) the nature and duration of the possession. In re Marriage of
Santa Cruz, 172 Ill. App. 3d 775, 783, 527 N.E.2d 131, 136
(1988); In re Marriage of Sechrest, 202 Ill. App. 3d 865, 871,
560 N.E.2d 1212, 1215 (1990); see also In re Custody of Menconi,
117 Ill. App. 3d 394, 398-99, 453 N.E.2d 835, 839 (1983);
Barokas, 109 Ill. App. 3d at 543, 440 N.E.2d at 1041; In re Mar-
riage of Nicholas, 170 Ill. App. 3d 171, 178, 524 N.E.2d 728, 733
(1988).
While the supreme court indicated in Kirchner no combi-
nation of these factors is sufficient to confer standing on a
nonparent if there has not been a voluntary relinquishment of
custody by the parent (Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d at 493, 694 N.E.2d
at 335-36), we find that all of the above factors are relevant to
the determination of whether there has been voluntary relinquish-
ment. An analysis of the above factors is necessary because,
aside from a situation of abandonment, a parent does not typi-
cally state "I hereby voluntarily, indefinitely relinquish cus-
tody of my child," although her actions and the surrounding cir-
cumstances may indicate that is exactly what she is doing.
Menconi, which was cited with approval in Peterson,
provides an example of when a parent may be deemed to have volun-
tarily relinquished physical custody of his child. There, the
child's natural mother died shortly after the birth of the child
and the father placed the child in the home of his parents. The
daughter lived with the grandparents for 6« years before the
father returned and attempted to regain custody forcibly. In the
6« years, the father had reclaimed physical possession of the
child several times, for periods of a few weeks, but invariably
returned the child to his parents' care. Menconi, 117 Ill. App.
3d at 395, 453 N.E.2d at 836-37. Examining the above factors,
the court found that based upon the voluntary nature of the
father's transfer of the child to his parents, and the length of
time he left her with them, he had relinquished custody indefi-
nitely and, therefore, did not have physical custody of her when
the custody petition was filed. Menconi, 117 Ill. App. 3d at
398-99, 453 N.E.2d at 839.
In contrast is Barokas (109 Ill. App. 3d 536, 440
N.E.2d 1036), where the mother placed her child in the temporary
care of the child's adult sister and the sister then turned the
child over to a third party without the mother's permission.
Once in possession of the child, the third party filed for custo-
dy under section 601(b)(2) of the Act. The court held the mother
had never relinquished physical custody of the child within the
section's meaning and, therefore, the third party did not have
standing to seek custody.
The case most factually similar to the present contro-
versy is Carey. There, as in the present case, the natural moth-
er agreed in the dissolution action that the father be awarded
permanent custody of their child. Carey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at
1042, 544 N.E.2d at 1294. Later, the father remarried and peti-
tioned the court to remove the child from Illinois to Virginia,
where he and his new wife had been transferred. The natural
mother did not contest the removal of the child from the state.
The father later died and when the natural mother sought a modi-
fication of the custody agreement, the stepmother asserted a
claim for custody which the natural mother contested, arguing the
stepmother lacked standing.
In making its determination on standing, the court
noted that in the agreement incorporated into the judgment order
of dissolution, the natural mother gave permanent legal custody
of the child to his father. Carey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at 1042-43,
544 N.E.2d at 1294. Primarily based on this fact, and the fact
that the natural mother did not contest the child's move out of
state, the court found the child's natural mother had previously
voluntarily relinquished physical custody of him. Carey, 188
Ill. App. 3d at 1049, 544 N.E.2d at 1299. The court further
found that although the natural mother had exercised her visita-
tion rights frequently, she had not provided for the care, custo-
dy, and welfare of the child in such a manner that, when the fa-
ther died, she was vested with physical custody. Carey, 188 Ill.
App. 3d at 1049, 544 N.E.2d at 1299. The court stated upon the
death of the father, custody of the child did not automatically
revert to the natural mother; rather, the proper procedure was
for her to file a petition for modification of custody under
section 610 of the Act (750 ILCS 5/610 (West 1994)) so the court
could determine custody according to the best interest of the
child. Carey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at 1051, 544 N.E.2d at 1300.
This is despite the fact that the court found the natu-
ral mother had frequently exercised her visitation rights, in-
cluding 18 overnight visits within the first year after the
child's move out of state, and that visitation continued in that
manner until the father died, three years later. Carey, 188 Ill.
App. 3d at 1043, 544 N.E.2d at 1294.
The only notable distinctions between Carey and Peter-
son are (1) the natural mother in Carey did not seek custody in
the dissolution proceeding; and (2) the natural mother and the
child lived a significant distance from each other in Carey, re-
sulting in less frequent visitation than the father in Peterson
enjoyed. The Carey court seemed to place great significance on
the fact that the natural mother agreed to the father's custody
of the child and the move out of state. (However, we do not find
that such agreements, in and of themselves, are sufficient to
constitute voluntary relinquishment of physical custody.) Last,
the court found it significant that the stepmother had provided
for the care and welfare of the child for several years prior to
the action for custody modification.
Applying the facts of the present case to the first of
the three factors recited in Santa Cruz, above, the record is
clear that Cindy and Marc were responsible for the care and wel-
fare of the children prior to the initiation of this custody
proceeding. Joan had been living in either California, Colorado,
or Wyoming since the parties separated in 1988, and has not been
responsible for the care of either child since at least September
1989.
With respect to child support, Joan did pay Marc one
lump sum of approximately $36,000 in 1988, after receiving an
inheritance of approximately $250,000, which she expected would
satisfy her support obligations as to Shane through his minority.
In the September 1989 order modifying custody, Joan was ordered
to pay Marc $200 per month per child. Joan paid Marc nothing
toward Tanya's support in 1989 or 1990, $900 in 1991, $400 in
1992, $600 in 1993, $250 in 1994, and nothing in 1995. Joan tes-
tified regarding her finances and, although the evidence demon-
strated she is not adept at managing her money, her actions over
the years also indicated she did not consider her child support
obligation a high priority. The evidence clearly demonstrated
Marc and Cindy were responsible for the financial support of the
children and provided for their care and welfare since 1990.
With respect to the second factor, Marc and Cindy ac-
quired physical possession of the children as a result of the
agreement between Joan and Marc with respect to Shane and by
Joan's subsequent voluntary transfer of Tanya to Marc in Septem-
ber 1989. Joan alleged this transfer was primarily due to health
problems she was having at the time. However, her testimony es-
tablished these "health problems" were merely hives or skin le-
sions occasioned by stress.
Finally, the nature of the relationship between Cindy
and the children has been one of mother-children and has been an
ongoing, developing relationship since 1990. Although Joan did
exercise visitation rights in 1990, 1991, and 1992, the trial
judge characterized her relationship with the children as one of
a "distant relative."
The evidence before the court established Joan volun-
tarily relinquished custody of her children indefinitely, within
the meaning of section 601(b)(2) of the Act; thus, they cannot be
said to have been in the custody of one of their parents when
Cindy filed her petition for custody. Joan's failure to visit
the children in the 2« years preceding this custody action, fail-
ure to maintain regular contact with the children, and failure to
regularly make child support payments all demonstrate the chil-
dren were not in the physical custody of Joan when Cindy filed
her petition.
Joan's argument that she relinquished custody to Marc
but not to Cindy is unpersuasive. Cindy and Marc attended to all
of the children's needs in the five years preceding this action
and Cindy effectively assumed the role of mother to Joan's chil-
dren. Joan fully supported such an arrangement and never at-
tempted to augment the role she played in her children's lives.
Finally, we reject Joan's suggestion that we should
look to her acts after, rather than before, Marc's death in de-
termining whether she voluntarily relinquished custody. Whether
a party has standing under section 601(b)(2) of the Act is deter-
mined by examining that party's status as of the date relief is
sought. See In re Marriage of Roberts, 271 Ill. App. 3d 972,
981-82, 649 N.E.2d 1344, 1351 (1995). Cindy filed her petition
for custody on the day Marc died; therefore, the question was
whether, as of January 10, 1995, Joan had relinquished physical
custody of the children. As concluded above, she had. Her ac-
tions since that date are irrelevant to the issue of Cindy's
standing. For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the circuit
court is affirmed.
Affirmed.
COOK, P.J., specially concurs.
McCULLOUGH, J., specially concurs.
PRESIDING JUSTICE COOK, specially concurring:
I agree with the majority's disposition of this case,
but I believe its reasoning is too restricted. In my view, the
surviving spouse of a custodial parent should generally have
standing to seek custody under section 601(b)(2) of the Act, even
if that surviving spouse is not related by blood to the child.
750 ILCS 5/601(b)(2) (West 1994).
In Carey, the court found that a stepmother, the widow
of the custodial father, had standing for two reasons: (1) a
mother-son relationship existed between the stepmother and the
child, and (2) the natural mother had voluntarily relinquished
legal custody and agreed to the child's move out of state. Car-
ey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at 1049, 544 N.E.2d at 1299. The dissent in
Carey was critical of the court's reliance on factor (2). Making
that factor the determinant "would only serve to discourage
amicable settlement of custody matters in dissolution proceed-
ings." Carey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at 1053, 544 N.E.2d at 1301
(Dunn, J., dissenting).
In Kirchner, the supreme court further considered the
standing requirement, which is found in the statutory language
that a nonparent may petition for custody of the child "only if
he is not in the physical custody of one of his parents." 750
ILCS 5/601(b)(2) (West 1994). Kirchner stated, "[t]he determina-
tion that a parent does not have physical custody of a child
turns not on possession; rather, it requires that that parent
somehow has voluntarily and indefinitely relinquished custody of
the child." Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d at 491, 649 N.E.2d at 335.
That language from Kirchner does seem to focus on factor (2), the
conduct of the noncustodial biological parent, but Kirchner is a
very different case on its facts from Carey. As the supreme
court pointed out in Kirchner, "[i]n simple terms, Richard is in
the Does' home without color of right." Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d at
492, 649 N.E.2d at 335. The same cannot be said of a child whose
custody has been awarded to one parent in a dissolution of mar-
riage proceeding, even where the other parent has objected to
that award. In the present case, the children were not in Cin-
dy's home "without color of right." In my view, the fact that
the parties have submitted their custody dispute to the dissolu-
tion court, and that court has awarded custody, satisfies the
Kirchner requirement that there be a "voluntary relinquishment."
Kirchner cited Carey with approval. Kirchner, 164 Ill. 2d at
492, 649 N.E.2d at 335.
Imagine a situation where the parents are divorced
shortly after the child's birth, the father receives custody,
then remarries, and the stepmother raises the child until he is
10 years old. If the natural mother did not agree to custody,
and visits the child every few months (which the court finds to
be reasonable under the circumstances), then under the majority's
rule the court cannot even consider whether custody in the step-
mother is in the best interest of the child. That is so even if
the stepmother is the only mother the child has ever known.
Perhaps custody in the natural mother would be an appropriate
result in some such cases, but it is not the result which should
be mandated in all cases, and I do not read Kirchner to require
it.
I agree with the Carey dissent that we should not dis-
courage the amicable settlement of custody matters. In my view,
Cindy should have standing in this case even if Joan had not
entered into the marital settlement agreement, even if Joan had
not asked Marc to take custody of Tanya, and even if Joan had
been able to exercise visitation more frequently. A court should
not have to find that the natural mother is a bad person in order
to find standing on the part of the stepmother. Because of the
mother-child relationship in this case which developed over a
period of five years, with color of right, the court should at
least consider whether an award to Cindy is in the best interests
of the children. Cindy is not an intermeddler in the affairs of
these children.
If Cindy is found to have standing and the case is
decided under the best interest of the child standard, the court
will still give considerable weight to the right of the natural
parent. In re Custody of Townsend, 86 Ill. 2d 502, 508, 427 N.E.2d 1231, 1234 (1981). The first factor listed under the best
interest of the child standard is "the wishes of the child's
parent or parents as to his custody[.]" 750 ILCS 5/602(a)(1)
(West 1994).
I disagree with the Carey dissent that the only differ-
ence between that case and Peterson was that in Peterson the
noncustodial parent contested custody during the dissolution
proceedings. I agree with the Carey majority which looked to
factor (1), the relationship between the grandparents and the
child. "Although the grandparents in Peterson provided a home
and helped their ailing daughter care for the child, there was no
indication that the grandparents had established any parental
relationship with the child." Carey, 188 Ill. App. 3d at 1050,
544 N.E.2d at 1299. In Peterson, "Lynette was in the sole care
of the Jadrychs only through the fortuitous occurrence of
Felicia's death" at a time Felicia happened to be living with the
Jadrychs. Peterson, 112 Ill. 2d at 54, 491 N.E.2d at 1153.
JUSTICE McCULLOUGH, specially concurring:
I agree with the determination that Cindy did have
standing to petition for custody of the stepchildren.
I write separately only with respect to the weight to
be given to the custody agreement and our approval of Carey.
It is important that the court give little weight to
the custody agreement between Marc and Joan. The agreement was
clearly in the children's best interests. We should and do en-
courage parents to help the trial courts settle custody. Parents
who set aside a self-centered, parent ego, in favor of what is in
the best interests of their children should not be penalized.
The noncustodial parent should not be in a weaker position in the
event the custodial parent becomes deceased or incapacitated. A
mother's conscientious and reasonable decision relinquishing
custody to the father is not reason to deny her custodial rights
when the father becomes deceased. Voluntary relinquishment must
be based upon other evidence. I agree there is sufficient other
evidence to determine Cindy has standing. I do have concern that
Cindy and Marc planned this proceeding as evidenced by the peti-
tion being filed the day Marc died. The evidence does not show,
however, that Marc and Cindy impeded Joan in any way in maintain-
ing her relationship with the children.
These cases are fact specific. Although I agree with
the trial court here, I do not necessarily endorse the reviewing
court's decision in Carey.