Bennett v. Jeffreys
20 N.Y.2d 543, 387 N.Y.S.2d 821, 356 N.E.2d 277 (1976)

  • Bennett was a 15 year-old unwed mother. Her parents made her give her child (Gina) to a family friend to raise.
    • There was conflicting testimony, but Bennett never surrendered custody, nor did she abandon the child.
    • No court order was ever given to Jeffreys to make her custodian of the child. It was all done informally.
  • Seven years later, Bennett had graduated college and had her life together. She asked for her child back. Jeffreys refused. Bennett sued for custody.
  • The Trial Court awarded custody to Jeffreys. Bennett appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Bennett had not surrendered custody, abandoned the child, or was unfit.
    • However, the Court simply found that since the child had been living with Jeffreys so long, she should stay there.
  • The Appellate Court reversed. Jeffreys appealed.
    • The Appellate Court found that the parent is entitled to custody unless there is a finding that she is unfit or abandoned the child, which there wasn’t.
  • The New York State Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
    • The New York State Supreme Court found that the State may not deprive a parent of custody of a child absent surrender, abandonment, persisting neglect, unfitness, or other extraordinary circumstances that drastically affect the welfare of the child.
      • Aka a parental presumption.
    • The Court found that once an extraordinary circumstance is found, then and only then should the courts make an inquiry into what the best interests of the child are.
      • In this case, the extraordinary circumstance of the prolonged separation of the mother and child required an inquiry into the best interests of the child.
      • The Court found that neither the Trial Court nor the Appellate Court had considered the best interests of the child.
    • The Court remanded with instructions to examine the relative qualifications and background of both Jeffreys and Bennett and determine the best interests of the child.
      • In the meantime, temporary custody was awarded to Bennett.
  • Upon remand (Bennett v. Marrow (59 A.D.2d 492, 399, N.Y.S.2d 697 (1977)), the Trial Court awarded custody to Jeffreys (now remarried and named Marrow). Bennett appealed.
    • The Trial Court conducted interviews, talked to child psychologists, and made a best interests determination that the child should be returned to Jeffreys.
      • The child wanted to live with Jeffreys, and was having difficulty adjusting to live with Bennett.
    • The Court gave Bennett some visitation rights.
  • The New York Supreme Court affirmed.
    • Because Jeffreys had the child for so long, she was the de facto parent, and basically she was kind of a ‘parent by estoppel’.
  • The basic rule when making custody decisions is that courts cannot go straight to a best interests test to determine custody when it is a parent vs. a non-parent, because there is a parental presumption that a parent has a fundamental right to raise their own child. It is only when the parental presumption is rebutted with clear and convincing evidence can the courts consider best interests.
    • In this case, the extraordinary circumstance of the prolonged separation of the mother and child overcame the parental presumption.