I am concerned about my niece’s wellbeing. Is it possible for me to obtain rights of custody and guardianship over her? The parents are still alive but divorced.
We often receive enquiries from family members of minor children wanting to know whether they can obtain rights of custody or guardianship over a minor child. The client could be a grandmother, an aunt, or in some instances, a former step-parent. Let us take you through a scenario where an aunt wishes to obtain sole custody and guardianship over a minor child. Should you be an interested party wishing to obtain parental responsibilities and rights over a minor child; feel free to contact us for a legal advice consultation.
The scenario: The minor child is being primarily cared for by the paternal aunt
The parents of a minor child, age 16, are married and living together. The minor child, who is in grade 10, frequents the home of her paternal aunt. The parents live very busy lives, and often have to travel overseas on separate business trips for extended periods. The minor child sometimes doesn’t see her parents for weeks on end. Nonetheless, she is well cared for by her aunt, during the week, and on most weekends, and whilst her parents are away on business. Basically, you can say the aunt is her primary caregiver, since birth.
The aunt has her own family, however, her husband passed away before the minor child was born. She has two adult children of her own living with her. They are both at university. The minor child is very fond of them and sees them as her older siblings. She even tells her friends they are her siblings.
The aunt collects the minor child from school, takes her to her extramural activities and assists her with her homework every day. She even used to bathe her at her home and makes sure she has supper before one of her parents or the driver collects her the evening.
A few weeks ago, the parents separated and the father moved to a different province due to work. The mother on the other hand, who has no time for the minor child, wants her to attend boarding school. This is a different school. Her current school is close to where the aunt resides. The mother now does not want the minor child to have any contact with the aunt or any of her husband’s family. Now let us see what the law has to say about this scenario.
Do aunts and uncles have parental rights and responsibilities over their nieces and nephews?
If you are not the biological parents of a minor child, you do not have parental responsibilities and rights over him or her. In other words, you do not have a right to have contact with the minor child. If the parents do not want the aunt or uncle to visit the child; then they have to adhere to it. The same applies to decisions regarding the minor child. It is the parents who must make decisions on the minor child’s behalf. In the scenario above, the aunt can’t demand that she wants the minor child to visit her every day as she did in the past. She is welcome to ask, but if the parents refuse, that would be it. Now let us look at the law that could assist the aunt.
Does the law assist interested parties in obtaining parental responsibilities and rights?
Obviously, it won’t be in the minor child’s best interests if she is placed in a boarding school and no longer have contact with the aunt and her cousins. Luckily, the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 comes to her assistance. It makes it possible for the assignment of contact and care to interested persons by order of the court. Furthermore, the Children’s Act makes it possible for a person having an interest in the care, well-being and development of a child to apply to the High Court for an order granting guardianship of the child to the applicant. In this case, it would be the aunt referred to above. Have a look at the relevant sections of the Children’s Act next. You may skip the reading of the relevant section of the Children’s Act and read on further below.
23 Assignment of contact and care to interested person by order of court
23 Assignment of contact and care to interested person by order of court (1) Any person having an interest in the care, well-being or development of a child may apply to the High Court, a divorce court in divorce matters or the children’s court for an order granting to the applicant, on such conditions as the court may deem necessary-
(a) contact with the child; or
(b) care of the child. (2) When considering an application contemplated in subsection (1), the court must take into account-
(a) the best interests of the child;
(b) the relationship between the applicant and the child, and any other relevant person and the child;
(c) the degree of commitment that the applicant has shown towards the child;
(d) the extent to which the applicant has contributed towards expenses in connection with the birth and maintenance of the child; and
(e) any other fact that should, in the opinion of the court, be taken into account.
(3) If in the course of the court proceedings it is brought to the attention of the court that an application for the adoption of the child has been made by another applicant, the court-
(a) must request a family advocate, social worker or psychologist to furnish it with a report and recommendations as to what is in the best interests of the child; and
(b) may suspend the first-mentioned application on any conditions it may determine.
(4) The granting of care or contact to a person in terms of this section does not affect the parental responsibilities and rights that any other person may have in respect of the same child.
24 Assignment of guardianship by order of court
(1) Any person having an interest in the care, well-being and development of a child may apply to the High Court for an order granting guardianship of the child to the applicant.
(2) When considering an application contemplated in subsection (1), the court must take into account-
(a) the best interests of the child;
(b) the relationship between the applicant and the child, and any other relevant person and the child; and
(c) any other fact that should, in the opinion of the court, be taken into account.
(3) In the event of a person applying for guardianship of a child that already has a guardian, the applicant must submit reasons as to why the child’s existing guardian is not suitable to have guardianship in respect of the child.
How does the law assist the aunt in the scenario above?
We would advise the aunt to make use of section 23 of the Children’s Act for the assignment of contact and care rights to her. The Application would be made to the relevant court. If she is successful, she will then still be able to have the minor child at her home after school and assist her. As the minor child is almost an adult, and her mother is around, we do not think it is necessary for her to be assigned rights of guardianship over the minor child.
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