Child Custody and Support Part III: Parental Rights in Nebraska

September 18, 2015

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While going through a divorce, child custody can be tough for parents, especially if you’re in the dark about Nebraska child custody laws.

In our Must-Have Information on Child Custody series, we’ll take some of the mystery out of the law and give you information you need about Nebraska custody laws.

In Part I, we walked through the legal concept of best interest of the child. Part II shared five pointers to help with a parenting plan. In this article, we’ll be discussing parental unfitness in a Nebraska child custody case.

What Do Judges Look for in Child Custody Cases?

In every custody case, the judge is first required to make a finding regarding the fitness of both parents. However, Nebraska statutes don’t define parental unfitness when it comes to custody cases. Attorneys and Judges have to look to law made by other cases to determine what it means.

Under Nebraska case law, parental unfitness in a child custody case means “a personal deficiency or incapacity which has prevented or will probably prevent, performance of a reasonable parental obligation in child rearing and which has caused, or probably will result in, detriment to a child’s well being” (Ritter v. Ritter, 234 Neb. 203 [1990]). Fleshing out what that means in human terms takes a bit more analysis.

It’s helpful to look at what unfitness probably is and what it probably isn’t. It’s best to say “probably” because the judge has a lot of discretion when it comes to weighing evidence in a fitness determination. You might want to know how to prove you are a fit parent in court, but each case is different, and a small turn of facts can make a big difference in the court’s decision.

What Do the Courts Consider an Unfit Parent?

Figuring out many of the behaviors that could prevent someone from doing what they need to do as a parent or result in harm to a child’s well-being is an exercise in common sense. Some of the most common include excessive drinking in the presence of the child or drinking that impairs a parent’s daily functioning, failure to take care of a child’s basic needs, and physical or verbal abuse of the other parent in front of the child.

The more egregious the behaviors are, the more likely it is that they will lead to a finding of unfitness. Things like illegal drug use in the presence of the child (or being under the influence of illegal drugs in the child’s presence), sexual behavior in front of the child or committing a violent felony are all likely to weigh heavily against a parent in the court’s fitness determination.

What Unfitness Probably Isn’t

As much as you might feel some of your spouse’s behaviors make him or her a dirtbag, those things don’t necessarily make for an unfit parent when it comes to child custody. The judge most likely won’t count marital infidelity, for instance, against a parent unless the child is present when it happens or is exposed to sexual activity.

Also, while things like failing to pack nutritious school lunches, failing to dress the child in weather appropriate clothes or missing dance classes may weigh into how a judge decides best interest of a child when it comes to custody, it won’t add up to unfitness.

One thing that definitely does not determine parental fitness and must not weigh into the decision at all is gender. In Nebraska, there cannot be gender bias in child custody, meaning a judge cannot consider gender in a determination of whether a parent is fit. Fathers and mothers are equal under the law in this regard.

What a Finding of Unfitness Means to You

If a Nebraska court finds a parent unfit in a child custody case, that parent will not be granted physical custody or legal decision-making ability regarding their child. However, unless there is a separate action brought to terminate that parent’s rights — and rights actually are terminated — they still have certain basic rights.

Without termination of parental rights, Nebraska law states every parent is entitled to full and equal access to their child’s education and medical records, regardless of who has custody of the child. Additionally, each parent may still make emergency decisions affecting the health or safety of the child while the child is in their care.

Cases Involving Allegations of Unfitness Require Experience

The law surrounding parental unfitness and parental rights in Nebraska can be difficult. It takes experience to navigate this area of law successfully. Hightower Reff can help.

Call us at 402-932-9550, or contact us online, and make an appointment to come visit with us about your case during an initial consultation. Don’t go it alone.

Next Time …

Check out Part IV of our Must-Have Information on Child Custody series, where we explore sole and joint custody.

This article should not be construed as legal advice. Situations are different and it’s impossible to provide legal advice for every situation without knowing the individual facts. 

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