Family Law Corner: Custody Battles with a Twist

In a situation reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson custody battle, Mexican officials have charged Hollywood producer Bruce Beresford-Redman (best known for his work with the TV show “Survivor”) with the murder of his wife, Monica.  The body of Beresford-Redman's wife was found April 8 in a sewer at the Moon Palace Hotel resort in Cancun, where the couple and their children were vacationing. Beresford-Redman was detained in Mexico while the police began investigating.  Since that time, the paternal grandparents and maternal aunts of the children have been embroiled in a custody battle over their guardianship.  Recently, the grandparents appeared to be maneuvering to return the children to their father who had returned to California before the arrest warrant was served. 

Immediately following Monica’s murder, the grandparents and aunts filed competing petitions for temporary guardianship.  The grandparents’ motion was granted (after the Judge took testimony from Beresford-Redman via telephone) and the aunts received temporary visitation.  When Beresford-Redman returned to California, he filed an ex-parte motion in conjunction with his parents’ request that their son resume parental responsibility and that they resign their temporary guardianship status.

The trial judge denied the ex parte request and ordered that the guardianship proceed to hearing and trial setting because “father’s status was in flux.”  The grandparents, in an attempt to hedge their bets, then withdrew their motion to resign their guardianship when it became clear that this opened the door for the maternal aunts to request permanent guardianship of the children. The aunts are asking the court to consider the “murder case” in making its custody decision.

Similarly, in the O.J. Simpson custody case, the Browns (who had assumed temporary guardianship of the children with O.J. Simpson’s consent while he was incarcerated awaiting trial) asked the custody trial court to consider the murder case despite Simpson’s criminal acquittal.  The Simpson guardianship trial occurred at the same time as the civil trial on Simpson’s liability in the deaths of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and received little media attention.

The custody trial court refused to consider the murders for procedural reasons and awarded custody to Simpson.  In a scathing reversal, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ordered the case remanded:  “First and foremost, the grisly circumstances of the murder itself simply could not be ignored. . . because the court sat as a court of equity, dealing with the interests of children . . . there was no need for reenactment of the so-called trial of the century.”  Guardianship of Simpson, 67 Cal.App.4th 914, 915 (1998). 

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court should have examined the totality of the evidence bearing on the father’s fitness with the burden upon him to show sufficient evidence of his overall fitness to justify the termination of the guardianship.  This standard comes from the Probate Code (section 1601 standard for terminating a voluntary guardianship) rather than the Family Code (section 3041 standard dealing with an involuntary loss of custody).

This explains why Beresford-Redman’s parents were ready to resign their guardianship—without their opposition, Beresford-Redman would not have to meet any standard to resume immediate custody of his children.  When the trial judge ordered the matter to proceed to hearing, the grandparents realized that if the maternal aunts obtained guardianship over the children, they would put the murder case at the forefront of the custody case, as should have happened in the Simpson case according to the Court of Appeals.

In the Simpson case, the Browns made a tactical error in not immediately filing for a writ when the trial court made its decision terminating their guardianship.   This would have stayed the decision until the Court of Appeals considered the case.  Instead, they appealed, Simpson took custody of the children for more than a year and ultimately met his burden when the case was remanded.