Court Fight over Jackson's Children Looms
June 29, 2009Michael Jackson's mother is caring for the singer's three children and asked the court Monday to declare her their guardian.
The guardianship papers were filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday. A hearing has been set for Aug 3.
Jackson left behind three children: Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince Michael, 12; Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 11; and Prince Michael II, 7. The youngest son was born to a surrogate mother.
The filings show that Katherine Jackson is also petitioning to take over the children's estate. Its value is listed as "unknown" in the filing.
The filing lists the children as living at the Jacksons' family compound in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of Los Angeles.
"Minor children are currently residing with paternal grandmother," the filing states in an explanation of why Katherine Jackson should be appointed guardian. "They have a long established relationship with paternal grandmother and are comfortable in her care."
The filings provide no other declarations by Katherine Jackson, nor do they state whether Michael Jackson left a will.
The filings note that Deborah Rowe is the mother of the Jackson's two eldest children, but list her whereabouts as "unknown." An e-mail message sent to Rowe's attorney seeking comment wasn't immediately returned Monday morning.
For Michael Jackson's third child, nicknamed as Blanket, the filing states "None" for the mother.
Londell McMillan, the Jacksons' attorney, said the family hasn't heard from Deborah Rowe, the mother of Jackson's two oldest children, about custody.
"I don't think there will be anybody who thinks that there is someone better" than Katherine Jackson to have custody, McMillan said Monday on NBC's "Today" show. "She is a very loving host of other grandchildren."
McMillan also said on the "Today" show that the family was "quite clearly troubled" about the circumstances surrounding the death, given that Jackson had appeared healthy enough to be rehearsing for his upcoming concerts in London.
Asked whether the family suspected foul play, McMillan said those words were "too strong an indictment."
Edward Chernoff, a lawyer for Michael Jackson's doctor, Dr. Conrad Murray, said in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press that Jackson still had a faint pulse and a warm body when Murray found him in bed and not breathing Thursday afternoon.
Chernoff said Murray was at the pop icon's rented mansion when he discovered Jackson. The doctor immediately began administering CPR, Chernoff said.
"He just happened to find him in his bed, and he wasn't breathing," the lawyer said. "Mr. Jackson was still warm and had a pulse."
Chernoff said his client never gave or prescribed Jackson the painkillers Demerol or OxyContin, and denied reports suggesting that the doctor gave the pop star drugs that contributed to his death.
Chernoff said any drugs that Murray gave Jackson were prescribed in response to a specific complaint from Jackson.
"Dr. Murray has never prescribed nor administered Demerol to Michael Jackson," Chernoff said. "Not ever. Not that day. ... Not Oxycontin (either) for that matter."
Los Angeles County coroner's officials said their autopsy found no indication of trauma or foul play. But because of additional tests, an official cause of death could take weeks to determine. Jackson's family has requested a private autopsy.
Chernoff said Monday on the "Today" show that once the full investigation is complete, he expected Murray would be exonerated.
There was no word from the family on funeral plans. Many of Jackson's relatives have gathered at the family's Encino compound, caring there for Jackson's three children.
Given the secrecy surrounding Jackson's children throughout his life, it's no surprise that there are lingering questions about who will care for them. What is almost certain is this: Their fate will be decided in a courtroom.
Experts say the person who has the strongest legal claim to Jackson's two oldest children is Rowe. As for the youngest child, Jackson's wishes will be more influential. It remains unclear who Jackson designated as potential guardians for his children. Those details - likely contained in the 50-year-old singer's will - have not been released.
Rowe's attorney, Marta Almli, wrote in a statement Saturday that "Ms. Rowe's only thoughts at this time have been regarding the devastating loss Michael's family has suffered. Ms. Rowe requests that Michael's family, and particularly the children, be spared such harmful, sensationalist speculation and that they be able to say goodbye to their loved one in peace."
Jackson never told his family who he had in place to handle his business affairs, a person close to the family told The Associated Press on Friday. The person, who requested anonymity because of the delicate nature of the situation, said they were told by the singer's phalanx of advisers that he likely had a will, but it may be many years old.
Prince Michael II's mother has never been identified, and while she may surface, it is likely that she signed away her rights, said Stacy Phillips, a Los Angeles divorce attorney who has represented numerous high-profile clients.
Rowe, a former nurse for Jackson's dermatologist, married Jackson in 1996 but filed for divorce in 1999. She later gave up her custody rights to the children, but petitioned to have those rights restored in 2003 after Jackson was arrested on child molestation charges, and an appeals court sided with her.
Jackson and Rowe apparently agreed in 2006 regarding her rights, but the terms have never been disclosed. The couple's divorce case that was heard in Los Angeles Superior Court remains closed.
Phillips said if her parental rights remain intact, she's presumed to be first in line to receive custody of her two children. "That could still be contested," she added.
Rowe would have to undergo an evaluation by the court to determine if she's the best person to care for Jackson's children. So, too, would anyone else who applies to become the children's guardian - some of whom may have Jackson's blessing.
"If he did indicate a preference, that will be given great weight, but that will not be determinative," said Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred. "Children are not property, they cannot be willed to another person."
Allred agreed that Rowe has better legal standing than others who apply for custody of Jackson's eldest children. "She's definitely going to have an advantage."
But judges in California often take into account who is left in the children's lives with a strong bond, said Charlotte Goldberg, a family law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"It's really a balance between continuity and stability and a biological relationship," Goldberg said.
A judge deciding the matter may even seek input in chambers from Jackson's children about who they feel comfortable with, she said.
But a court will also take into account with whom the children have a relationship bond, and that may not work in Rowe's favor. She wrote in a 2001 petition to sever her parental rights that she thought Jackson was doing a good parenting job.
"Michael has been a wonderful father to the children, and I do not wish to share any parenting responsibilities with Michael because he is doing so well without me," Rowe wrote. She also indicated in court filings during the 2006 custody struggle that she had not seen the children since 2005, shortly after his trial ended in acquittal on all charges and Jackson moved the children overseas.
Whoever wins custody of Jackson's children won't automatically gain control of their inheritance, Phillips said.
"For many people, the person or persons who are taking care of their kids are not necessarily taking care of their money," Phillips said. "There's a benefit to that - a sort of a check-and-balance."
Rowe, or whoever is designated the children's guardian, will receive payments based on Jackson's estate, Phillips said.
More clarity about the fate of Jackson's children will likely come once court proceedings start.
Phillips said the looming custody fight could be unlike any other.
"In all the cases I've read all over the country," she said, "I've never seen a fact pattern like this."
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch; AP writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago, Juan A. Lozano in Houston, David Bauder in New York and Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Gillian Flaccus, Brooke Donald, Beth Harris and Mike Blood in Los Angeles.
(Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)