High court: ‘Best interest’ is standard in child custody dispute
DENVER – The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that a child’s best interest should prevail in some kinds of custody disputes that arise after the parents die, even if that conflicts with the parents’ will.Attorneys say the decision, handed down Monday, could have broad implications for other custody cases.The justices ordered a lower court to reconsider who should be named guardian of a 22-month-old girl whose father, Pfc. Stephen Sherwood, shot and killed his wife, Sara, and himself in August.The lower court had ruled that Stephen Sherwood’s mother, Kathleen Taylor Nace, should be the guardian because that’s what both Sherwoods directed in their wills and because the child would not be harmed by it.The unanimous Supreme Court decision said the standard in determining guardianship in such a case should be the child’s best interest, not whether the decision would cause harm.Sara Sherwood’s sister and brother-in-law, Ginny and William Brian Villers, are also seeking guardianship and appealed the lower court decision. The Larimer County Sheriff’s Department had placed the girl with them after the shootings, and they have been caring for her ever since.Nace’s lawyer, Amy Rosenberg, said she didn’t know whether her client would continue to seek guardianship.The ruling is important because it “spells out what we have assumed for quite some time but not had the definitive guidelines from the Supreme Court,” said Dave Heckenbach, a Denver lawyer who specializes in family law.Supreme Court Justice Alex Martinez wrote that the Sherwoods’ wishes were important and may be relevant in determining what the child’s best interests are. But, he wrote, the courts must consider all the relevant facts and circumstances when people who are caring for a child, such as the Villers couple, contest guardianship.”We are very pleased with the decision and just waiting to go to court to see what the judge rules,” Ginny Villers said. “The (little girl) is doing really well, and we are really happy.”Rosenberg said the ruling was not a complete surprise to Nace.”It (the decision) introduces uncertainty and ambiguity into the naming of a guardian under a will,” Rosenberg said. “And I think it raises the possibility that anyone who takes immediate physical possession of a child can stop what otherwise would be a valid naming of a guardian in the will,” she said.Investigators have said Stephen Sherwood, 36, shot his 30-year-old wife and then himself in August after she told him she was having an affair. Stephen Sherwood had returned from Iraq only days before.Their daughter, then 15 months old, was with a neighbor at the time of the shooting.
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