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The presumption that fit parents act according to the best interest of their children applies when modifying an existing order that names a parent as the child's managing conservator because a fit parent presumptively acts in the best interest of his or her child and has a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of that child.
Abigail was born in 2014. Abigail's father, C.J.C., was the relator in this mandamus proceeding. Abigail's mother died in a car accident when Abigail was three years old. In 2016, Abigail's father filed a suit requesting that a court determine conservatorship, possession, and child support. At the conclusion of that proceeding, the trial court named Abigail's mother and father her joint managing conservators. The order granted Abigail's mother the right to designate Abigail's primary residence and granted Abigail's father regular periods of possession. Abigail's mother became involved in a relationship with Jason. By September 2017, Abigail and her mother had moved into Jason's home until her mother’s death in 2018. She began to live exclusively with her father. Her mother's attorney filed a suggestion of death, Abigail's father moved to dismiss the modification proceeding. While the motion to dismiss was pending, Abigail's maternal grandparents and Jason petitioned to intervene in the modification suit and asked to be named joint managing conservators with Abigail's father. Both Jason and Abigail's grandparents asked for court-ordered visitation with her. Abigail's grandparents were eventually allowed to see her on a regular basis. Though Abigail's father did not object to Abigail's seeing Jason while she visited her grandparents, he objected to Jason's having a legal right to possession of Abigail on his own. Over this objection, the trial court entered temporary orders naming Jason a possessory conservator of Abigail, granting "duty of care, control, protection, and reasonable discipline" during his periods of possession. Abigail's father filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the court of appeals, challenging the temporary orders. The court of appeals denied relief. He then petitioned this Court for relief, arguing that the trial court's orders violated his right to parent Abigail without government intervention.
Did the trial court abuse its discretion in ordering, over the objection of the child's father, that the deceased mother's boyfriend be named as the child's possessory conservator with rights to possession of the child?
The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Constitution "protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children. Texas jurisprudence underscores this fundamental right, and we too recognize that it gives rise to a "legal presumption" that it is in a child's best interest to be raised by his or her parents. Although the best interest of the child is the paramount issue in a custody determination, "[t]he presumption is that the best interest of the children" is served "by awarding them" to a parent. Thus, the fit-parent presumption is "deeply embedded in Texas law" as part of the determination of a child's best interest. Jason's argument that Abigail's father "affirmatively sought the court's intervention" and thus "waived the parental presumption in any later modification suit was erroneous. Abigail's father filed the original suit affecting the parent-child relationship in this case that resulted in the order naming him a joint managing conservator, and he also sought temporary orders in this modification proceeding. A fit parent does not forgo the right to parent a child by seeking to exercise that right. A child does not become a "creature of the State," subject to the court's unfettered determination of the child's best interest, because a presumably fit parent invoked the judicial process to establish his or her conservatorship of the child. 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. No party alleges, no evidence demonstrates, and no court finding exists that Abigail's father is unfit to be her parent. Nor is there evidence or findings rebutting the resulting presumption that Abigail's father acts in her best interest. The trial court thus abused its discretion in ordering, over the objection of Abigail's father, that Jason be named Abigail's possessory conservator with rights to possession of the child.