Sibling Custody: Stay Together or Separate?

January 18, 2012
By M. Devin Whitt on January 18, 2012 3:10 PM |

Custody disputes in Misssippi are never easy. Two parents are put into the untenable position of being forced to battle against each other for the right to keep and care for a child that earlier belonged to both of them. These disputes are complicated even further when, instead of just one child being at issue, there are two, three, or more brothers and sisters whose well-being are at stake. Suddenly, the court may be forced to consider whether siblings should go to one parent or be divided between the parents.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has reiterated time and time again that, in custody disputes involving multiple children, courts should strive to keep the family unit together. But the custody analysis does not change in multiple-child households. In every child custody dispute in Mississippi - even those involving more than one child - the court will follow the guidepost that custody should be awarded to the parent best able to serve the "best interests and welfare of the child."

In making this "best interest" determination, Mississippi courts have consistently and explicitly used what are called the Albright factors, so named after the 1983 case in which they were first outlined. These factors are discussed in more detail in the custody section of my blog. Even in multiple-child custody disputes, Mississippi courts still will use these factors in determining which parent will best fulfill the "best interests" of the children. So a key question necessarily comes up when siblings are involved: Is it in the "best interests" of siblings that they stay together in a custody determination?

The answer to this question is simple: It depends. Mississippi courts generally try to keep siblings together, but the decision hinges on the facts and circumstances of each case. The Mississippi Supreme Court has said time and time again that when circumstances do not require the separation of children, the courts should make a strong attempt to keep the siblings together. The Supreme Court has also said that siblings may be separated if circumstances dictate that division of the siblings is in their best interest. So the courts' determination of keeping siblings together or splitting them up depends primarily on the facts of the case.

In fact, Mississippi courts have also said that there is no general rule that it is in the best interests of the siblings to remain together. (Conversely, the Supreme Court has held that there is no general rule that it is in the best interests of the siblings to separate.) That is to say, one should not even presume that siblings automatically will be kept together in a custody dispute. While courts will try to keep the siblings together, circumstances may exist that make keeping siblings together not in the "best interests" of the children.

For example, in one case the court separated siblings partially because the thirteen-year-old older brother expressed a strong desire to live with his father. Another case found the court separating siblings only after determining that both father and mother were fit to raise children. In another case the court had no trouble separating half-siblings.

It must be noted, however, that courts have been less reluctant to separate the siblings when the custody arrangements are favorable in terms of maintaining a familial bond. For instance, if siblings are split between the parents, but the terms of custody stipulate that the siblings see each other every weekend and at all holidays, Mississippi courts have been less reluctant to separate the siblings. If the separated siblings will attend the same school, the courts have been more willing to acquiesce. Basically, if the negative effects of separation can be mitigated as much as possible, the court will take that into account when making the determination.

To conclude, while there is technically no presumption that keeping siblings together or splitting them up is in the siblings' best interests, it seems that Mississippi courts will more often than not lean towards keeping siblings together. But at the end of the day, sibling custody depends on the circumstances of each case, just like any custody determination.

If you are seeking custody of your child or children, it is critical that you retain an experienced family law attorney who will aggressively protect your right to custody of your child. As a Mississippi divorce and child custody attorney, I will be on your side to navigate the complex issues of child custody, zealously protect your interests, and offer direct, meaningful legal advice designed to achieve your desired results. I have litigated these custody and support cases throughout Mississippi and have the capability and resolve to guide you through your family crisis should you need assistance. Should you need professional, aggressive representation in child custody support, modification, contempt, or other family law matters, please contact M. Devin Whitt at (601) 607-5055.