It's the Octomom vs. celebrity attorney Gloria Allred! Battling in the California Court of Appeals over the rights of a stranger to intercede to protect children whom he's never met, just because they're on TV. Well, and because there are 8 babies, plus 6 other kids, and a mom with no husband and no job.
While Octomom Nadya Suleman has captured the interest of the nation for the mind-blowing number of children she's given birth to in the last few years, her court case has peaked the interest of guardianship attorneys across the country. Why? Because it addresses a unique question: To what lengths should the law allow court intervention to protect children . . . should a complete stranger be able to haul a parent into court?
A few months after Suleman gave birth to her now famous (or infamous) octuplets in January, 2009, a self-proclaimed champion of celebrity children filed a guardianship proceeding seeking to protect the kids. He asked for an independent guardian to be appointed to oversee the children's finances. He wanted to make sure they received their fair share of any profits Suleman earns from reality shows and other money from footage and photographs of the family that redefines the phrase "Eight Is Enough!".
Paul Petersen, represented by celebrity California attorney Gloria Allred, filed the legal proceeding under California's law allowing even non-family members to seek protection for the estates of children. Specifically, the law permits a guardianship filing by "a relative or other person on behalf of the minor" to protect the financial interests of the kids.
So what does "other person on behalf of the minor" (or in this case, eight little minors) mean? Does this include a total stranger, who's never met the kids? We're not talking about a government employee whose job it is to protect kids. This is just a guy who feels like be helpful . . . or nosy (depending on whom you ask).
The first court that heard the case sided with Petersen and ruled that he could challenge Suleman's fitness to manage her kids' money. The judge denied Suleman's request to dismiss the case and instead appointed a guardian at litem to investigate and report back to the court.
Suleman filed an appeal. Her attorneys argued to the Court of Appeals that a stranger shouldn't be permitted to bring a legal proceeding like this one. Octomom's legal counsel also argued that it was especially improper when the stranger had no evidence of wrongdoing, but instead relied on TV reports and internet articles.
The California Court of Appeals agreed with Suleman, in a published opinion released a few days ago. You can read the opinion by downloading it here: Download Suleman Ct of Appeals Opinion.
But, it wasn't a total loss for Petersen and others who want to protect celebrity children. The Court ruled that strangers could legally start a guardianship proceeding like this one, but only when they had supporting facts showing financial misconduct or other information to warrant court intervention.
So what facts are strong enough to allow a case like this to proceed? The court opinion stated that a mere belief or concern that something bad may happen is not enough. Parents have a constitutional right to raise their children and California law assumes a parent is competent to raise his or her children unless proven otherwise.
So a stranger, like Petersen, can try to interfere, but only with actual evidence to support the case. In other words, Peterson needs to show some documents or testimony that The Octomom Extraordinaire did something wrong with her kids' money before the court can entertain a guardianship case. Until then, Suleman and her numerous offspring are on their own.
At least, that's where the law is, in California, as of today. Gloria Allred said Petersen is considering appealing the case to the California Supreme Court. So the legal ruling could change.
What do you think? Is Suleman's decision to undergo IVF, leading to octuplets, after already having 6 young ones at home, and then electing to profit from them through a reality TV show and selling footage and images of the children enough to justify the involvement of a court?
Or should she be free to raise all those kids without a complete stranger trying to butt in and question her actions without any proof of financial misconduct?
Don't be surprised if Petersen does try to appeal. This case will have far-reaching implications, especially in California, for children who earn money, on television or otherwise. If Petersen succeeds, all parents of those children may find themselves in court one day answering questions raised by a complete stranger.
Of course, some would argue that any parent who wants to profit by putting their kids on reality TV should have to answer questions to make sure the kids are protected.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+