When Michael Jackson unexpectedly passed away last week, the world was stunned by the death of the fifty-year-old entertainer who left an indelible mark on pop culture. He was preparing for a world tour that was advertised as his fans’ last opportunity to see the King of Pop perform on stage. Whether motivated by a desire to sing again or by undeniable financial problems, the tour that would have brought hundreds of thousands into arenas will never happen. Along with his amazing legacy of music and a sorted legal history, Michael Jackson also leaves behind an endless number of questions surrounding his unusual personality and life. What exactly was the cause of his death? An official pronouncement from the coroner has been postponed pending toxicology reports, but rumors are rampant concerning his addiction to prescription drugs and the courts want the opportunity to speak with his various doctors.  Will we now learn more about the plastic surgeries and other alterations he chose to endure? Finally, there is a question that likely will be answered in a California courtroom over the weeks and months to come. What is to become of Michael Jackson’s children? In the middle of all of the chaos and media frenzy, I hope we all remember these three innocent participants in the family drama.
Michael Jackson leaves behind three children whose new home is yet to be determined-Prince Michael, age twelve, Paris Katherine, age eleven, and Prince Michael II (also known as Blanket), age seven.  The first two kids are the product of his marriage with the former nurse for Mr. Jackson’s dermatologist, Debbie Rowe, which lasted from 1996 to 1999.  Ms. Rowe originally gave up all custodial rights when the two terminated their marriage, but successfully appealed to have parental rights restored following Jackson’s arrest in 2003 on child molestation charges. The youngest boy was born to a surrogate mother who has never been identified. In fact, official documentation lists “None” in the space indicated for the birth mother.  So, the California courts are left with two birth mothers who have had little or no contact with their children. What are the possible options at this point?
California law considers several issues when determining child custody cases, using the guiding factor of the “best interest of the minor child” as the overriding influence in such decisions.  First, the courts examine the best environment for a child’s safety, health, and welfare. They also check for a history of physical abuse or violent crimes committed by any of the parties seeking to share in the custody. The stability and continuity of an environment is critical in the eyes of the court. Children need to have established bonds and patterns with the person who is deemed to be the primary caretaker. Unless there are circumstances that require otherwise, such as specific health or educational needs, all efforts will be made to keep siblings living together. Finally, the court must give “due weight” to the wishes of the children in this difficult situation, assuming that their ages and reasoning ability allow them to express such a preference.
Earlier this week, Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, was granted temporary guardianship of all three children.  In a will written by Michael Jackson in 2002 and released the day after Mrs. Jackson received temporary custody, the courts revealed that this placement was in accordance with Jackson’s last wishes. However, Mr. Jackson does not necessarily have the final say in where his children will live until they reach adulthood. The well-known celebrity attorney Gloria Allred said about the situation, “”If he did indicate a preference, that will be given great weight, but that will not be determinative. Children are not property, they cannot be willed to another person.”  So far, however, Katherine Jackson is the only possible guardian who has expressed an outright and definitive interest in caring for the children. She has a long-standing relationship with all three of the kids and is surrounded by other grandchildren of the Jackson family. This environment could prove the most stable and loving for Prince, Paris, and Prince Michael II. Charlotte Goldberg, a family law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that in all child custody cases, “It’s really a balance between continuity and stability and a biological relationship.”
Where does the current state of affairs leave Debbie Rowe? Experts believe that she has the strongest legal claim to the two oldest children, if she should choose to assert her parental rights. As this article is being written, Ms. Rowe has just requested and won a delay in the upcoming custody hearing as she decides whether or not she wants to pursue her rights to raise her two children.  This legal move today was the first communication that Ms. Rowe has offered since the death of Michael Jackson a week ago. If she does decide to move herself to the front of the custody line, which would likely be her legal prerogative, Ms. Rowe would need to undergo an evaluation by the court to determine if she is the best person to care for the children.
Whether a celebrity or someone who has never found herself on the cover of a tabloid magazine, the emotional issues involved with child custody situations are always difficult. Above all else, it should the desire of the courts and all parties involved to make the decision that is in the best interest of the children. Where will the children feel most secure and loved while working through a painful life transition? Who is surrounded by the best support network when extra assistance is needed with the children? Who can provide the most solid financial support? If you are seeking custody of precious children in your life whose circumstances are changing for reasons ranging from divorce to death, you should seek the assistance of a family law attorney who has the experience needed to be sensitive to the heightened emotions that are involved. If you also happen to be in the public eye, you will want to find legal representation that brings knowledge of how to navigate through the magnified issues of celebrity law. While it may be difficult to focus on these practical needs when you are caught up with tending to a family in pain, making these decisions early will make for an easier road ahead.
 Farrell, Michael B., “Michael Jackson and prescription drugs: a window on a broader U.S. issue?”, The Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0701/p02s17-ussc.html, June 30, 2009.
 Sugden, Joanna, “Michael Jackson: star’s family offers to take in children,” Times Online, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article6583560.ece, June 26, 2009.
 McCartney, Anthony, “Court fight over Michael Jackson’s children looms,” Yahoo! News, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090629/ap_on_en_mu/us_people_michael_jackson_custody, June 29, 2009.
 “Jackson’s parents file to administer his estate,” AP News, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31613227/ns/entertainment-music/, June 30, 2009.
 “General California Child Custody Guidelines,” Kinsey Law Offices, http://www.kinseylaw.com/clientserv2/famlawservices/childcustody/childcustody.html, 2009.
 Relative, Saul, “Michael Jackson’s Kids Are Not His? Then Whose Are They?”, Associated Content Society, http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1900288/michael_jacksons_kids_are_not_his_then_pg2.html?cat=49, July 1, 2009.
 McCartney, Anthony, “Jackson Ex-Wife Shows Interest in Custody of Kids,” AP News, http://www.chippewa.com/articles/2009/07/02/ap/headlines/d996m4dg2.txt, July 2, 2009.