Page last updated at 17:02 GMT, Friday, 3 July 2009 18:02 UK

Jackson custody case: the legal issues

Michael Jackson's mother Katherine and ex-wife Debbie Rowe
Jackson's mother Katherine or ex-wife Debbie Rowe may get custody

Michael Jackson's ex-wife Debbie Rowe is reportedly considering whether to fight for custody of the couple's two children.

The BBC News website asked Professor Scott Altman, an expert in family law from the University of Southern California, to explain the legal issues surrounding the custody battle.

Who will win custody of Michael Jackson's three children? Many variables seem like they could affect the outcome.

Jackson's will names his mother as guardian (or in her absence, Diana Ross).

His ex-wife Debbie Rowe tried to disclaim her status as a legal parent, and then returned to court and had the termination of her rights overturned.

And Jackson's youngest child seems to have no legal mother, having been born to an as-yet-unknown surrogate.

Genetic test?

Bizarre and complex as these facts seem, most of the legal issues raised have been long settled in California (where admittedly bizarre and complex family disputes are more common than elsewhere).

In California, children born to a married couple are strongly presumed to be the spouses' legal children.

In this case, no one will be able to dispute Jackson's or Ms Rowe's status as parent to the older children.

Nor will Ms Rowe's early effort to terminate her parental right be final, because parents cannot terminate their own rights without a judicial investigation.

Likewise, Jackson's will should not affect child custody.

If the children know her as a mother and have seen her frequently, she will almost certainly win

Although parents regularly indicate in a will who should be named guardian in case of their death, these designations typically become effective only upon the death of both parents.

One parent's will cannot unilaterally deprive the other parent of custody.

So how will the court decide?

California law presumes that minor children belong in the custody of a legal parent - in this case Ms Rowe.

The law also allows judges to override this presumption if parental custody would be detrimental to the children.

So a court will need to see evidence.

If, as has been widely speculated, Ms Rowe has rarely visited her children over many years and has almost no relationship with them, a court could easily deny her custody.

But if the children know her as a mother and have seen her frequently, she will almost certainly win.

This leaves the question of the youngest child. Ms Rowe has no claim to be his legal mother.

She did not give birth to him, and was not married to Jackson when the child was born. Certainly a court might award Ms Rowe custody of all three children - most courts favour keeping siblings together.

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