The McLendon Standard Revisited by Court of Civil Appeals: S.R. v. B.G. and K.G., November 3, 2023, Appeal from Morgan County Juvenile Court; Opinion authored by Judge Christy Edwards.
1984 was a year of endurance. In May of that year, the Chicago White Sox and the Milwaukee Brewers played the longest game in baseball history with 25 innings lasting over 8 hours.
1984 also saw the birth of Alabama’s most enduring family law case, Ex Parte McLendon 455 So. 2d 863 (Ala. 11984). In short, this case has endured as the principle for which it stands, the McLendon Standard: if a parent loses custody through a final order, and later wishes to modify custody, that parent must show a material change of circumstances both in the current custodians home, and the proposed new home, that will materially improve the child’s life.
About once a quarter the Court of Civil Appeals releases an opinion where the trial court has made a ruling in keeping with the McLendon Standard, and a parent has challenged that standard on some ground of constitutionality or fairness.
In the case under consideration today, S.R. v. B.G. and K.G., the natural mother challenged the constitutionality of McLendon, especially where a natural parent loses custody in a dependency proceeding.
The Civs held that
By virtue of the March 2020 judgments, which awarded the custodians custody of the children, she lost the parental presumption in favor that would apply in an initial custody dispute.
Once the mother was no longer entitled to that presumption, she could not longer rely upon it to elevate her claim to the custody of the children, at least in a custody dispute with the custodians.
The Civs thought it was significant that the mother stipulated to dependency and explained that “she had no presumptive right to custody” as juxtaposed to the custodians in whose care they had been placed.
The Civs explained that the purpose of the McLendon Standard is
to protect the right of the children to “the valuable benefit of stability and the right to put down into [their] environment those roots necessary for the [children’s] healthy growth into adolescence and adulthood.”
The Civs repeat this and make it stronger
The custody-modification standard set out in Ex parte McLendon is concerned not with the rights of the custodian of a child, but the interests of the child whose parent has lost his or her custodial presumption
In the end, the Civs made it clear that the mother in this case did not present compelling evidence that the interest of the child would be materially promoted by placement in her custody. She did not meet the McLendon Standard.
So the durability of 1984 carries on. McLendon still carries the day. But, this day, the Civs remind us that purpose of the standard is the child’s best interest.
Some interesting dicta from the Civs comes from D.E.F. v. L.M.D., 76 So. 3d 834, 839 (Ala. Civ. App. 2011) (Moore, J., concurring in the result) (explaining that “when a juvenile court enters a final dispositional judgment ending the dependency of the child … that judgment implies a judicial determination that family reunification no longer serves the best interests of the dependent child ….”).