Constitutional Law - Constitutional Rights of Parents Do Not Require Showing of Unfitness in Third Party Cases

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Constitutional Law--Constitutional Rights of Parents Do Not Require Showing of Unfitness in Third Party Cases--Kulstad v. Maniaci, 220 P.3d 595 (Mont. 2009).

The United States Constitution and the Montana Constitution protect a natural parent's fundamental right to parent his or her children. (1) Courts have, however, differed in defining the extent of that right and the protection it affords the natural parent in relation to a third party seeking to establish contact with a child. (2) In Kulstad v. Maniaci, (3) the Montana Supreme Court considered whether the constitutional rights of a natural parent required a showing that the natural parent was unfit as a prerequisite to awarding a third party a parental interest. (4) In upholding the constitutionality of sections 40-4-211 and 40-4-228 of the Montana Code, the court held that the absence of a requirement that a court first determine the fitness of the parent before granting a parental interest to a third party does not violate a natural parent's fundamental rights. (5)

Michelle Kulstad and Barbara Maniaci began a relationship in 1995, eventually moving in together in Montana and exchanging rings with each other. (6) As their relationship progressed, they discussed the possibility of parenting a child together. (7) They met with a lawyer who advised them that only one of them could legally adopt a child under Montana law. (8) When they got the opportunity to adopt a child, they agreed Maniaci would be the adoptive parent, but both would act equally as parents in raising the child. (9) Later, Maniaci pursued a second adoption despite objections from Kulstad. (10) Although Kulstad disagreed with the second adoption, she nevertheless acted as a parent to both children, providing physical and emotional support on a daily basis until she and Maniaci ended their relationship in 2006.11

In January 2007, Kulstad sought an order from the district court granting her a parental interest. (12) After an initial hearing to determine whether Kulstad had a parental interest, the court concluded that pursuant to sections 40-4-211(4)(b) and (6) of the Montana Code, Kulstad established by clear and convincing evidence that she had formed a parent-child relationship with both minor children. (13) The court established an interim parenting plan, and found section 40-4-228 of the Montana Code would apply to the final decision that would be made at a later date regarding the parenting arrangement between Kulstad and Maniaci. (14) A bench trial was held in May 2008 to determine whether Kulstad should be awarded a permanent parental interest in the children. (15) After hearing testimony from several medical professionals, the court found both children had attachment disorders, both recognized Kulstad as their parent and, therefore, it would be in the children's best interest to award Kulstad a parental interest. (16) On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court held by a six to one majority that the district court did not violate Maniaci's constitutional rights as a natural parent by not first establishing that Maniaci was unfit before awarding Kulstad a parental interest. (17)

The Montana Supreme Court has long held that the "careful protection of parental rights is not merely a matter of legislative grace, but is constitutionally required." (18) The court has interpreted this constitutional protection to require a showing of parental abuse or neglect before a court can consider granting visitation or transferring custody to a third party. (19) In upholding this standard, the court has expressed the need to carefully guard against the state's ability to interfere with the parent-child relationship. (20) In a pair of decisions, the court rejected as unconstitutional two different statutory schemes permitting a lower court to award custody to a third party over a fit parent based on the best interest of the child. (21) The court voiced its distaste for making custody decisions based solely on the subjective best interest standard in third party cases, because the court would be invited to inquire into whether a child's best interest means that he or she should be raised by a wealthy or intelligent family as opposed to a natural parent. …